The stage was black and empty of a set or props. A single spotlight shone straight down at the front of the stage. Enter a man in a black body suit, white gloves, scarf tie, white spats and lips and eyes encircled with white greasepaint. He sings the following, slowly and with a sinister accentuation of the lyrics:
". . . And all those good old tunes will ring out loud and clear / Dandy coons in their nifty acts appear; / And we all hope that you our minstrel show will cheer; / There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight."
The song is "Hot Time," a traditional opening to minstrel shows, the 19th-Century theatrical entertainment for whites that made fun of plantation slaves, portraying them as stupid, childlike and subhuman, among other denigrating traits.
Friday night at UC San Diego's Mandeville Auditorium, things got even hotter when, near the end of the show, sharp words were exchanged between the audience and the show's creator, Donald Byrd.
Some in the audience felt Byrd's repetitious and unyielding indictment of racism had gone far enough. Byrd, obviously, did not agree.
The "Hot Time" that opened Byrd's "The Minstrel Show: Acts for Coons, Jigaboos and Jungle Bunnies"--performed by Byrd and his New York-based contemporary dance company, The Group, and presented by UCSD--was exaggerated and unmistakably ironic. The soloist didn't sing it in the traditional way, as a happy cacophonous banging with ever-quickening tempos.
Like the numerous other minstrel show traditions in the two-hour revue, the song reflected the exaggerations of minstrel shows themselves, a destructive hyperbole that has perpetuated some seemingly undying racist and sexist stereotypes.
Purely from a dance-appreciation perspective, "The Minstrel Show" was satisfying, even intriguingly hypnotic at times, in part due to the musical accompaniment performed live by Mio Morales. Side stage and visible to the audience, Morales played a pulsing mix of keyboard and percussion, which he electronically manipulated and augmented, often layering yet more sound on top.
Further, the hypnotic sense was partly a result of the soft-surreal lighting design of David Rosenberg and the sometimes ingenious costumes by Gabriel Berry that satirically accentuated the dancers' shimmies or vampings.
But it was Byrd's artistically unflagging choreography, energetically delivered by his company of 11, that intrigued the most. Fast-paced and fluid movement, the dancing was a seamless assemblage of old-style, high-kicking show biz razzle, African dances, postmodern piecemealing, ballet, early American social dances and minstrel show caricatures. The interwoven dance aspect was a major aesthetic achievement.
Byrd, however, had no intention of merely presenting dance with an underlying social-historical statement about racism and its perpetuation in contemporary entertainment industries. This was theater about racist theater. And something beyond even that.
Byrd came on stage in street clothes and without minstrel makeup, had the house lights brought up and asked, a la Arsenio, for six volunteers to come on stage and tell the most recent racist jokes they'd heard.
He lined up the volunteers to imitate, in minstrel tradition, a Tambo and Bones set of joke telling. Afterward, he asked those too chicken to come on stage to write down their jokes and he'd collect them later. The show continued--a spoken routine about a white whitewasher and a black whitewasher, a fake cake walk to ragtime music, a stump act with Byrd (apparently) costumed in orange wig and gaudy burlesque suit doing an idiot monologue, and a sexist "girls, girls, girls" song and dance. The sexism and racism were blatant and distressing.
Intermission came, but unfortunately more than a few in the audience thought the show was over. The printed program, unforgivably, did not inform the audience of anything but the biographies of The Group. A separate program published by the Donald Byrd Dance Foundation included a brief history of minstrelsy and two essays giving a sense of Byrd's intentions for the work. This, it seemed, was not available to the audience, but was included in press materials.
It's not that the work cannot stand alone without explanation. But background information would have heightened the impact of Byrd's achievement, helped "explain" some of the overkill and generalizations, and defused some unnecessary confusion and frustration, particularly the discomfort of being both amused at the racist jokes and being ashamed at being amused, for example. This is from the Byrd Dance Foundation program:
". . .'The Minstrel Show' is a collage of different scenes challenging the spectator to become a co-writer. While the work has a definite point of view, it doesn't give answers but raises questions such as: What does it mean to tell a racial joke? What are the implications of presenting stereotypes? Do we recognize stereotypes when we encounter them outside the theater? How complicitous are we in perpetuating stereotypes?"
Such a clue as to the point of the show might have elevated the content and sophistication of the heated exchange between Byrd and audience members (and between audience members themselves) once Byrd's reading of numerous racist jokes (supplied by the audience) pushed the limit of audience tolerance.
This confrontation took place near the end of the show's remaining half. One exasperated voice shouted out, "We get the point!" Byrd challenged that statement, among others launched at him, such as an accusation that he himself is prejudiced. Eventually the message surfaced: "Well? What are you going to do about it? . . . Unless you are doing something about it (racism), you are participating."
As to the objection that the audience came for dance (and not for overt racism, anti-Semitism and sexism via jokes), Byrd's retort was: "This form (racist entertainment) is part of our history, whether you like it or not. It is that damaging."
The few minutes of open conflict may have clarified the point of "The Minstrel Show" for many. Recognize the bigotry in our culture and do something to stop it.
Some booed, many cheered, as Byrd walked off for the show to continue. A "Mammy" rendition followed, gloriously and darkly satirical, the most successful number in the second half.
But those few minutes between Byrd and his audience--an extreme departure from a typical dance performance--were the highlight. They were unforgettable. There was, at least, in that moment "a hot time" that night.