In this essay I will be focusing and researching on the sensitive Essay

In this essay, I will be focusing and researching on the sensitive subject of Blackface Minstrelsy in theatre as well as answering my own question and discussing what the consequences may be for this theatrical makeup look in the 1830s compared to nowadays in the 21st century. In week 9 of ‘Performance and History’, the class were asked to pick a topic from the whiteboard that they would like to talk about in a mini class presentation we did on that day.

One of the options on the list were Blackface Minstrels which I picked to present to the rest of the class, and from then on, I thought it would be a great idea to also base my essay on this very topic and era in theatre.

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Blackface minstrelsy was very popular in the United States and first began in the 1830s in New York, and they were shows that were organised and staged by white male minstrels who were known to be travelling musicians.

In the 19th century, these shows were known for making fun of black people to entertain white audience members which came across as offensive, racist, and not to mention; also stereotypical. When showcasing blackface, the white men would make their faces darker by mostly using cork or shoe polish. They also wore afro textured wigs, they would even paint their lips red to make them appear bigger, and they would make their eyes bigger along with wearing raggedy and oversized clothing which they referred to as “Negro” costumes. Additionally, minstrelsy performances were known as a very popular American theatrical form from the 19th century to the 20th century.

According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the first ever blackface character, Jim Crow, who was portrayed as a black male slave, was created by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who was also known as the “Father of Minstrelsy.” Rice observed an enslaved old black man who worked in the stables which gave him some ideas for his performances. He generally observed a lot of slaves who belonged to a master named Mr Crow which therefore gave him ideas. As I mentioned before, he mimicked the way blacks spoke and their speech and introduced his audience to Jim Crow at the Old Park Theatre. When he would impersonate his Jim Crow character, he would usually wear ripped and indecent and clothing such as a raggedy hat and torn shoes to demonstrate how the slaves’ clothing looked. On the left, there is a photo of Rice without his costumes and darkened face, on the left, you can see another photo of him but with darker skin and dressed as a black slave. According to Dr. David Pilgrim at [FerrisStateUniversity], Jim Crow laws existed and they were put into place. They had to be followed by the blacks at all times; otherwise there would’ve been serious consequences. The laws included what blacks could and couldn’t do, for instance; blacks were not allowed to be intimate with whites in any way, this included shaking hands or hugging. If for whatever reason, these two races were intimate, the white person was allowed to take advantage and report the black person for rape or assault. Another Crow law that was put in place was that black people were not supposed to ever vote. Only whites were allowed to be democrats and vote. The whites were seen as more superior and they were allowed to disrespect blacks, but blacks were never allowed to do the same. Instead, they had to show the whites respect at all times even when being visibly disrespected. Fredrick Douglas, who was an abolitionist had watched a minstrelsy performance and expressed his true feelings about what he saw. He described the actors as filthy scum of the white society. Douglas also added that; they stole a complexion that was denied to them by nature to make money and dishonour white civilians.

Furthermore, this photo shows you two images of the transformation of a white male actor called Billy Van who was interested in monologues and comedy. Billy was a playwright and actor who impersonated black people in his minstrel shows, by using songs, dances and speaking like how African Americans would speak (vernacular speech) which many people found interesting and comical. Many people would believe that he was being disrespectful and also stereotyping blacks as being “ghetto” or overall stupid and lazy. William Henry Lane was one of the first blacks to ever perform in blackface with a white audience. Although he was already black, he still had to darken his face with blackface, makeup as the audience didn’t want to see him without it. He was known for inventing tap dancing and was known by his stage name, Master Juba to his audience. He had to perform with blackface makeup until he became well known and famous. Once his career took off, he was allowed to stop wearing the makeup and was free to travel with the white actors. Blacks began to participate in minstrels in the 1840s and became accepted to perform in the 1860s. Many believed that the performances by blacks didn’t change anything; in fact, the whites felt as though the stereotypes were indeed true and that they were right about black people in society all along.

The only way that black people would’ve been allowed to perform was if they admitted to being “real coons” and their job was to make sure that they fulfilled the expectations from white and black audiences. Black minstrels only applied burnt cork to their skin that was already dark, all while using stereotypical routines that the whites would’ve used. African American jazz was the music of the blacks that came from many different places such as; New Orleans, Kansas City, San Francisco, Harlem (New York), and Chicago. During the Jazz Ages, the blackface minstrelsy was said to be ventriloquised by the whites. In other words, the whites would make themselves sound exactly like how they thought blacks would sound. They usually spent time with some of the slaves to observe their movements or the way they spoke. According to author, Michael Rogin, even though whites performed in musicals, playing dramatic blackface roles were a form of transgression to cinematic conventions of realism.

On the other hand, blackface minstrelsy was also practiced in Britain and was a form of entertainment from the 1840s to the 1970s making it longer in the UK compared to the USA. In the mid 20th century, these minstrel shows in the UK began to die down and became less popular over time. Moreover, blackface didn’t only just take place in shows, they also occurred in books, adverts, posters which showed locals that the blackface era wasn’t going anywhere just yet. Unlike minstrelsy in America, the Brits ensured that they were different and would bring forward new ideas such as; new forms of music, different periods in history, and different types of communication which avoided the shows from becoming boring and helped them become more popular and gain more support from the public. In 1836 after Thomas Dartmouth Rice performed as Jim Crow in Britain, the whole minstrelsy influenced the Londoners and British performance culture in general. America inspired Britain to start doing minstrelsy shows, moreover, both Britain and America had similar ways of showcasing blackface; however, the Brits took a different route at one point by having powdered wigs and wearing court dresses and also including “Cockney parodies of George Chirgwin” into their shows.

Surveys from ‘Washington DC-Based Think-Tank the Pew Research Centre’ have declared that more than a third of American citizens believe that it is not offensive nor racist for a white person to darken their skin or wear makeup to look like a black person. According to another survey, 15% participants declared that wearing blackface is only okay and acceptable when it’s Halloween. On the other hand, 19% said it was only acceptable sometimes. Overall, blackface is offensive to black people and should never be tolerated. Blackface is disrespectful for so many valid reasons; it brings back painful and prejudice history about racism in America and highlights the fact that whites used to make fun of enslaved Africans, although these shows were supposed to come across as comedic and entertaining. They (blacks) were often described as cowards, slaves, lazy, hypersexual, and even ugly [].

“To say it is offensive to transgendered people for non-trans people to play them is nonsense. Because you have to have been a murderer to play Macbeth, you have to be Jewish to play Shylock. It’s nonsense.” This quote from Simon Callow on raises an argument regarding if blacking up is offensive or not. Some people may think that acting has become boring and stupid because the whole idea of acting has somehow disappeared. As mentioned in the quote, if an actor decides to play a homosexual character when they’re not homosexual in real life, it should be okay for a non black actor to play a black character which definitely doesn’t make any sense and frankly speaking, these two situations are not the same. Playing a homosexual character isn’t offensive and isn’t mocking a race’s tragic history. From a personal point of view, I think that the whole idea of blackface minstrelsy is barbaric, and justifying the fact that non blacks should blacken their face and play black characters is equivalent to non gays playing gay characters which shouldn’t even be up for discussion. It is the 21st century; therefore we shouldn’t be dealing with this anymore, actors shouldn’t take it upon themselves to take physical attributes from different races as it can come across as disrespectful to many although racism does still exist in some parts of the world today. In a letter by a man called Bruce Norris, he states the “ignition” for this particular group and also the protests and activism had something to do with The Deutsches Theatre production of Dea Lohrer’s play ‘Innocence’ which happened in February 2012. The play focuses on two African characters that were portrayed by white actors using blackface. The letter then progressed to mention that Norris in fact removed the German rights to ‘Clybourne Park’ which was a play he wrote about race because he had come to the conclusion that The Deutsches Theatre company were thinking about using and experimenting theatrical makeup on white actors.

To answer my question regarding what the consequences of blackface would be in today’s society compared to the 1830s; I personally feel that if somebody was to walk the streets of London or America with blackface makeup, there would be physical consequences for that person, as London and America have become very diverse with people from different races and ethnic backgrounds. Non blacks mustn’t act oblivious in situations like this because there are people in the world who will think that the only way to get them to stop doing this is by being violent. Blackface is a negative representation of black people, and if blackface minstrelsy was to somehow come back and become popular in the 21st century, there would potentially be riots or boycotts in order to end it. Additionally, celebrities would be one of the first people to have an input on this situation. Blackface minstrel shows may not happen anymore, however blackface still seems to appear, but in hidden ways. For example; around February 2019, Gucci released a Balaclava knit sweater which is a black sweater with a turtle neck that goes all the way up to the model’s mouth with a cut out that is red around her lips. Another hidden blackface incident that had a lot of backlash was Katy Perry’s block heeled sandals. The sandals featured some eyes and big red lips that most people believed to resemble blackface minstrelsy makeup. Both of these incidents were trending on social media and caused a big uproar from social media users. Celebrities also had a lot to say about these designers, even leading rapper, 50 Cent, to post a video of him burning his Gucci t-shirt, and others getting rid of any Gucci products they owned. I feel that it is beneficial and helpful to be in a generation where social media is used because people can then use their platform to speak on issues like this, whereas if we were still in the era where blackface was accepted, people of colour wouldn’t have a say and won’t be allowed to freely express their dislikes. As I mentioned before, the difference between blackface then and now would have to be the reactions from communities. Furthermore, if minstrel shows were to be performed now, nobody would find it comedic or even slightly entertaining; there would probably be a huge uproar and possibly physical altercations. Lastly, a video of British television presenters; Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly shows them dressed as two Jamaican women also, and speaking with an exaggerated Jamaican accent. They may not have intended for it to blow up out of proportion like it did, but to the Caribbean community, that would be seen as disrespectful.

The reason I decided to pick this topic to write about in my essay was because I was generally fascinated with the history of blackface and I feel that it is not only interesting, but also educational. There were also a lot of things I’ve covered in this essay that nobody may have known about. Additionally, as a black female, typing this essay was actually enjoyable although it was long to do; even I still managed to learn a couple of facts. Secondly, I’ve always been interested in finding out where the whole topic of blackface came from because when I was younger, I honestly just thought that a bunch of white people just applied mud or chocolate to their faces for fun, I never actually knew that they were mocking blacks. Aside from this, I think it would be a good idea for blackface to be taught in lessons. By doing this, generations that will come after us will have an overview on what blackface really was, followed by reasons it has a negative impact on people of colour. A key point I would like to address is the fact that black people used to get mocked and for having big lips, or the black women would get mocked for having big and round butts; but nowadays, if you go on social media and watch some TV shows, you will see the amount of non black females who have paid to get lip fillers to make their lips bigger or even silicones or butt lifts to make their bodies look curvier. Everything that black women used to get picked on for naturally having is being done by non blacks as if it is a trend when it is not. Overall, the resources I have used to do my research have helped me tremendously, and has given me useful and sensible information.

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