How would a contemporary audience grapple with the profound emotional ambiguity of seeing extraordinarily talented African-American performers--in a minstrel show? What if the potential for discomfort were magnified by the play's subject matter: specifically, the repugnant American tradition of lynching, a form of injustice that claimed the lives of at least five thousand people between 1882 and 1968, most of them African American?
Given the cold shoulder Triangle theatergoers gave Max Sparber's Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown last weekend, we may never know. It's particularly unfortunate, since the small, engaged audience at Friday night's performance at Manbites Dog Theater recognized a show that may well be among the highlights of the season.
This production by UNC Greensboro's Theatre Alliance for Social Change ably demonstrates the unique capacity of live theater--abetted by inspired performers and well-crafted material--to address, redress and even transcend the most loathsome of cultural traditions. The Greensboro student organization, appearing in Manbites Dog's Other Voices series, is committed to staging the works of underrepresented playwrights and delivering performances that address racism, discrimination, and social change.
Minstrel Show focuses on the true story of the lynching of William Brown, an African-American man accused of assaulting a white woman in Omaha, Neb., in 1919. In songs, dance, folk tales, and toasts, two sassy but shell-shocked minstrels named Yas Yas and Sho' Nuff (respectively played by Lakeetha Blakeney and Nathan Crocker) perform the agonies and ironies of American history, self-conscious of the radical nature of a history told from the perspective of the "ones that seen it."
Blakeney and Crocker's investment in the show, their marvelous singing voices, flair for comic timing, and dramatic range suggest a troupe that should play to standing-room-only crowds. As self-possessed witness-performers, the pair invite the audience to laugh first and then cry with them, as they recount the tragic and true history. Their vitality and fearlessness enhance the ironic juxtapositions that seem to interest Sparber. Together, performers and playwright transform the demeaning comedy of the minstrel act and temper the inevitable melodrama of the tragic retelling.
Sparber's impeccable attention to history and its silences underlines the edification and the entertainment the minstrel show and the melodrama offer. Minstrel Show was first produced in Omaha in 1997, in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse where the events of the show actually took place. Most of the drama's details resonate on several levels. When Yas Yas and Sho' Nuff remember that a group of spirited young boys bears the rope used to lynch Brown, it's hard not to think of Father Flanagan's Boys Town, founded in Omaha in 1917, or to recall Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay's "The Lynching": "And little lads/lynchers that were to be,/Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee."
Historians don't call 1919 the "Red Summer" for nothing. It's no coincidence that Sparber has chosen the unremembered Brown as his play's absent presence. (A photograph depicting his dead body in flames appears on several Internet sites that do not report his name.) Better known riots (or massacres) in Chicago and Washington today overshadow the murderous activities in small-town America. Although they lived on the prairie rather than in a Southern or border state, Nebraskans meted out their fair share of frontier justice. Between 1882 and 1968, Nebraskan mobs lynched 57 people, most of whom were white men.
William Brown suffered from crippling rheumatism and most likely had nothing to do with the alleged assault. As Yas Yas and Sho' Nuff eloquently present their case, addressing the audience as an ad hoc committee of Omaha town elders, their eyewitness account calls forth both the ghoulishness of the event--and its typicality. Ten to 15 thousand people stormed the streets of Omaha, lynched their own mayor, and riddled William Brown's body with hundreds of bullets. Then he was hanged, shot some more, and his body was burned. After Reconstruction, historians recall that such public tortures and dismemberments regularly took on a "festive atmosphere." Newspapers sometimes published announcements for anticipated lynchings and railroads sold tickets to the sites.
It may be difficult to consider a minstrel show about lynching an appropriate entertainment for a fine fall evening. But Sparger's play is anything but pedantic or preachy, and Crocker and Blakeney are virtuoso performers. It's a shame so many people missed the opportunity to experience an unusually well-wrought combination of artistry and social engagement.