The Persistence of Blackface and the Minstrel Tradition
By Stephen Johnson
From the Introduction: Some time ago I was approached by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where I teach, to be interviewed on a radio talk show regarding the question “Why has there been a resurgence in the use of blackface in contem- porary society?” The interview did not take place—more newsworthy events took precedence—but the question remains. Although I cannot anticipate the experience of the reader of this volume, in my own experience, in just the past few years (as of this writing), I have been repeatedly confronted by blackface in almost every “walk” of my life as a spectator. In film, Tropic Thunder featured Robert Downey Jr. in permanent blackface in a parody of the overzealous “method” actor. On cable television, Sarah Silverman sported blackface for an episode of her comedy series, and a character in Mad Men, set in the 1960s, blacked up to serenade his fiancée at a public gathering. In the British sketch series Little Britain, performers in traditional “golliwog” blackface appeared in a series of sketches as a “typical” minstrel family. In the reality series America’s Next Top Model, a fashion “shoot” involved the contestants mixing and matching cultural groups, including both “traditional” costuming and face painting. Off-off-Broadway, the Wooster Group has used blackface to denote and then deconstruct the performance of race. Off-Broadway, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play Neighbors cast actors in blackface for roles named Zip, Jim, and Topsy. On Broadway, the musical The Scottsboro Boys used a traditional minstrel show (whatever that may be) as an organizing format, and included a “blacking up” scene. Closer to my own local culture, a student paper’s annual satirical issue mocked “experimental” theater productions by advertising a (fictitious) radical reinterpretation of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in blackface; and a group of undergraduates won a Halloween costume contest dressed in blackface as the characters from the Jamaican bobsled comedy Cool Running. I could add to this list at some length.
Having established that there is, indeed, a resurgence of blackface in con- temporary society, I would ask just one follow-up question: Did “blackface” ever go away? It seemed largely to disappear from television, film, and other popular mass media from at least the 1960s. But in fact, I don’t believe it did, or could, disappear entirely.
This volume explores both where the use of blackface came from, where it went, and why it’s back.
Stephen Johnson is Director of the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies (The Drama Centre) at the University of Toronto. He has taught theatre, film and performance studies at the University of Guelph, McMaster University, and at the University of Toronto Mississauga, as well as at the Drama Centre. His publications include The Roof Gardens of Broadway Theatres, numerous book chapters, and articles in The Drama Review, Canadian Theatre Review, Theatre Topics and Nineteenth Century Theatre, as well as Theatre Research in Canada, which he (co)edited for ten years. He has edited a volume of forty essays for Performing Arts Resources entitled A Tyranny of Documents: The Performing Arts Historian as Film Noir Detective. His recently completed research project on blackface minstrelsy resulted in a database and website, available as a link from this site ( link.library.utoronto.ca/minstrels ). He is currently working on a related project, Cross Border Blackface, exploring the history of minstrelsy in Southern Ontario, which among many defining attributes was a terminus for the underground railroad. He is also developing a web-based project focusing more generally on performance in Southern Ontario during the 19th and early 20th centuries, available as it develops at link.library.utoronto.ca/ontheroad/canadawest.