The Last Minstrel Show?

Telling the tragic tale of The Scottsboro Boys with happy-go-lucky minstrelsy may show audacity, but it lacks empathy

By Marshall Jones III

"In Islamic cultures, they worship the Prophet Muhammad."

That simple utterance amounted to only about three seconds out of a two-hour musical–Holiday Jubilee, a festive December production at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., that celebrated the holiday spirit in different cultures around the world–but the statement was not correct. A Muslim colleague divulged this fact to me at the conclusion of the show's run. In Islamic cultures, of course, only Allah is worshiped; the Prophet Muhammad is the messenger.

I was the producer of Holiday Jubilee. Since the show paid homage to multiculturalism, we tried to be scrupulously accurate in our representations of the cultures depicted. But we did not have a Muslim serving in any position on our creative team, and we overlooked this simple and obvious error.

That incident reminded me why it's so vitally important to have the appropriate representation when creating artistic works that deal with cultures, societies and/or ethnicities other than your own. If you're unable to have those "others" in the room, the sensitivity quotient of your creative team needs to be particularly high. As someone who has devoted his career to issues of diversity and inclusion, this is a truth I know all too well. (I've served as the president of the Tony-winning Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, chair of the Radio City Diversity Committee for the Rockettes, and on the board of the American Conference on Diversity.)

The classic instruction to young authors in Playwriting 101 is simple and clear: Write what you know. Following that premise, you, as the storyteller, possess an innate understanding of your story; further research is unnecessary because the truth is deep inside of you.

But after a writer has thoroughly explored "what I know" territory, the creative desire to broach new ideas and subject matters might naturally arise. What serves as inspiration for these new subjects? And if they are sensitive or controversial subjects, yet outside a writer's cultural scope, should he or she have free rein to deal with them in a work of art?

The Gershwins come to mind. What was their creative impulse to write the opera Porgy and Bess, now on Broadway in a dramatically revised version? Reportedly, in 1926 George Gershwin read DuBose Heyward's best-selling novel Porgy. As a white southerner, Heyward wrote several novels about the experiences of blacks in South Carolina, and he was largely credited with portraying black Americans with a sympathetic point of view and an attention to the details of their lives.

When the Gershwins shifted the medium from the novel to the three-dimensional musical stage, the result proved controversial, particularly in its time. Indeed, the historical debates about the racial implications of Porgy and Bess continue even today (and seem to be the impetus for a number of the changes writer Suzan-Lori Parks and director Diane Paulus have made for the new version).

I can't help but wonder what a novel, play or opera written by a gifted citizen of South Carolina's fictional Catfish Row would look like. Of course, we'll never know–it's an unfortunate blemish on the history of the United States that the artistic talents of so many Americans were never fully realized due to the weight of oppression and racial stratification. The world today is a very different place than it was in the 1920s; after thousands of lives were sacrificed and millions marched to demand equal rights and racial equality, outlets for stories about black culture are now abundant–TV cable networks, radio stations, book publishers, magazines, websites and, of course, a few theatre companies.

Still, the wounds inflicted by racism run deep, and I'd venture to say that even with a black family residing in the White House, centuries of emotional scars caused by racism have yet to fully heal. The disconcerting residue of centuries of bigotry, racist superiority and white privilege is hiding in plain sight in our cities, our schools and our prisons.

When the new musical The Scottsboro Boys, with a score by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, opened on Broadway in the fall of 2010, my inbox was flooded with e-mails from colleagues expressing their opinions about the show (for theatre folk, opinions are never in short supply). I was quite curious about it, because notices from the previous Off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre had said that the show's use of minstrelsy to retell an appalling bit of history–nine black teenagers were scurrilously accused of rape in 1931, and imprisoned and tried without resolution for well over a decade–was deft, and that the result was an excellent production.

I attended a preview at the Lyceum Theatre and was impressed with the sheer craftsmanship of the show: the staging, the choreography, the acting, singing and dancing. Having worked with director/choreographer Susan Stroman more than a decade ago on the holiday favorite A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, I was keenly aware of her talents.

But I was not impressed by the show's use of minstrelsy to communicate the story, and found myself agreeing with Charles Isherwood's New York Times review. He wrote: "I'm not sure it's possible to honor the experience of the men it portrays while turning their suffering into a colorful sideshow." For one thing, the clever show-within-a-show device used in prior Kander and Ebb musicals (Cabaret, Chicago and others) seemed anachronistic here–the minstrel show as a theatrical genre was long dead by the 1930s. What's more, I didn't see the point of reopening the many wounds this particular format created in its day. In short, I was offended.

What made it more painful for me was watching several gifted black male actors performing in a show whose style and method–if not its message–I found abhorrent. As a theatre producer and a black man, I know all too well how difficult it is to find suitable material for black actors, let alone then trying to find an audience for that material.

So it was extremely interesting to read comments by David Thompson, who wrote the book for Scottsboro Boys, discussing an irony he noticed early on:

The very first day of the very first reading, ironically, was the day after Obama was elected, that Wednesday morning. Here you are, you're sitting with a group of black men in a rehearsal studio and they're reading the script. It was as if there had been a seismic shift in the world. For a moment we thought, is this piece relevant anymore? Have we discovered we're on the other side of the conversation?

No, I don't think we're on the other side of the conversation. For me, the more important, more truly "seismic" shift would have come if the color of the people behind the scenes had been different. In this case, only the performers in The Scottsboro Boys were black. If any of the core storytelling creative team had been black, or if some of the producers were black, or if there had been an increased level of sensitivity among those holding the show's reins, I believe The Scottsboro Boys would have been a fundamentally different show than the one I saw.

A week after I saw it, I felt compelled to write and express these thoughts to Susan Stroman. She was very respectful and appreciative of my feelings, and expressed the hope that her show would increase conversations about race. I wrote back that it was my hope, by the same token, that her show could also "evolve into a teachable moment about the state of racism, as well as about the importance of members of a culture or race telling their own stories." (Stroman, it should be noted, is restaging the musical for engagements this spring and summer at San Diego's Old Globe and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. Another production ran in January and February at Philadelphia Theatre Company, with Stroman's direction "recreated" by Jeff Whiting.)

I also shared with Stroman a story from a colleague–a cousin of the Tony-winning performer, movie star, recording artist and gifted dancer and performer Gregory Hines–that had been e-mailed to me:

Back in the '70s, Gregory was down and out and needed a payday. He was cast in The Last Minstrel Show Off Broadway. I went to see him in his dressing room. Gregory, who was nearly always ebullient, seemed depressed. I asked him what was wrong. He shook his head and all he said was, "I hope this is the last minstrel show." I fully understood his motives. Got to stop. It's making me queasy.

Obviously, that show wasn't the last of minstrelsy.

The controversy around The Scottsboro Boys hasn't been about the message itself–the plight of these young men, who become emblems of the multitudes of black Americans afflicted by injustice–but rather in how the message was being delivered. With all due respect to the creators of The Scottsboro Boys, the use of minstrelsy as a storytelling device ultimately demonstrates a lack of empathy with the tragic events the show depicts. And the choice of minstrelsy only highlights the question of who gets to tell whose story, and how. The answer has always been, of course, that the dominant culture imposes its will on the minority. The dominant culture always has the audacity to claim whatever it wants, whether it's someone else's stories, or their land, or even their bodies.

Racial injustice and struggle are deeply woven into the history of America; more Americans (some 620,000, it's estimated) died in the Civil War–a war essentially about race–than in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam combined. One must face this history and all its subtexts to comprehend why watching the story of the Scottsboro Boys told as a minstrel show can be so offensive.

Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form, taking shape around 1840. White performers donned blackface and performed comic skits and variety acts, portraying black people in a derogatory and lampooning fashion as lazy, happy-go-lucky buffoons.

By 1848 and for several decades afterward, the blackface minstrel show was the lens through which whites saw black life interpreted. Though they certainly must have understood some of the comic exaggeration involved in these shows, whites effectively saw the racist stereotypes in minstrel shows as realistic depictions of everyday black life. Those gross exaggerations were not so comic for the blacks being depicted, as they continued to survive under extremely adverse and oppressive circumstances.

After the Civil War, the popularity of whites-only minstrelsy declined. Some enterprising blacks took up the baton, establishing their own minstrel-show companies in which they served as producers and performers. These entrepreneurial minstrel shows generally possessed stronger religious themes and included high-stepping brass bands. Many colored audiences felt delight in seeing their brothers perform, while educated blacks generally had a disdain for the form, whether the performers were white or black.

As black-operated minstrel shows began to be accepted by the black community in the post–Civil War era, this form of entertainment might have helped in the journey toward healing the wounds of racism. But with the advent of motion pictures, images of whites in blackface reached even wider audiences, in such films as 1915's Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) and the first popular talkie, Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer in 1927. Subsequently, the format had a lamentable screen revival, with such legendary white performers as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and even Shirley Temple immortalized on film in blackface. These major stars–perhaps unwittingly–took part in deriding an entire race, while black performers could only get roles playing servants or chauffeurs. Viewing these films today can help us to imagine, at more than a century-and-a-half's distance, what it was like to sit through a live performance of a blackface minstrel show in 1850.

So is my point that you have to be a member of a certain ethnic group in order to tell that group's story? Not necessarily. Storytelling requires a certain amount of audacity, even when a writer or a performer feels intimate with the material. If one takes that audacity further by electing to tell another culture's story, one must be ultra-sensitive to its particulars in a meaningful and empathetic way.

For a fine example of empathetic sensitivity merged with superior craftsmanship, look no further than the plays of Athol Fugard, the white South African playwright now being honored with a season of plays at New York's Signature Theatre. While writing his share of multifaceted white characters, Fugard also manages to capture the complexities of black South Africans–to put a human face on the citizens of his country who suffered under the oppressive boot of apartheid.

So, yes, I believe you can successfully create artistic works about a culture or race other than your own. But to embark on that endeavor is a bold decision that should be coupled with an enormous degree of empathetic compassion.

Marshall Jones III is the producing artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company, an associate professor of theatre arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and a TCG board member.