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Thoughts on Waiting for Minstrel
By Gary Winter
When offered the opportunity to respond to one of the plays or genres we have been examining in Lynn Thomson’s America-in-Play workshop, I thought about my own work and the types of structures I had been experimenting with. For example, my play The Impotent General, performed last year at The Brick Theater in Williamsburg, used a three-part structure of loosely related themes. The “scenes” were sketches with, I hope, dark and sly political commentary. Pocahontas (alas, an iconic American figure) featured broadly in the sketches: I played off the ridiculous romanticizing and fetishistic Hollywood portrayal of Pocahontas (i.e., Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World).
In our workshop, I became intrigued by the structure and content of minstrel shows. I knew little about them, except how they were used to denigrate African Americans. That is certainly true, particularly after the Civil War, when racists and anti-abolitionists used minstrelsy to depict Blacks as servile, “happy children” and ill-prepared to live as free people. In other words, they were better off as slaves.
Besides having conversations with Lynn and Dominic, sources I consulted included the book Inside the Minstrel Mask, by Mel Watkins (Wesleyan University Press, 1996). I also watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, an incredibly profound and moving satire of minstrelsy. Minstrelsy is generally believed to have begun in the 1830s, consisting of skits, musical numbers, and variety acts, performed by whites in black face. T.D. Rice is credited with developing the original minstrel show with his signature “Jump Jim Crow” song and dance number.
Besides the fascinating history of this purely American entertainment, I was interested in the structure of the minstrel show, since I had already been exploring the three-part structure. The minstrel show consisted of three performers: an interlocutor, who was sort of a moderator or straight man, and his end men, Tambo and Bones, who played the tambourine and “bones” (rattled bone castanets or bones) respectively. So it was a nice surprise to find out that The Impotent General, although nothing like a minstrel show, did share some of its formal ideas. It was satisfying to know that the oddball structure that I had found for The Impotent General has historical precedence in early American theater. Now I can actually claim I knew what I was doing all along.
In our final America-in-Play project, I decide to use the minstrel structure to create a wholly modern play and comment on current politics by focusing on New Orleans and the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. The play, Waiting for Minstrel, used the popular minstrel song Old Dan Tucker to satirize the government response to New Orleans. Another aspect of the minstrel show was the stump speech, a comic speech filled with malapropisms. In Waitng…, a visitor from FEMA delivers an absurd and insensitive stump speech to the “good people of New Orleans.” Another aspect of the minstrel show was to parody highbrow entertainment, particularly the British stuff, so in Waiting…. Tambo and Bones read an excerpt from the new Tom Stopit play, Snooze of Utopia.
In my first draft of the play I used period slang, and that didn’t come across very well, especially considering I was writing a modern version. It felt like a bad imitation of a minstrel show. After discussions with Lynn, I decided to use contemporary language, and that made the piece modern while clearly referencing the minstrel show. Also, all the characters in my piece were women, and the actress who played the interlocutor was African American. It was exciting to use the formal devices of the minstrel show while commenting on the current state of political affairs (particularly in relation to African Americans), while turning the genre on its head.