The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show
America's everyday explanation of minstrel shows is, on a personal level, much like the tale of a President who refuses to own up to his past, preferring instead to present sanitized versions of events: we are told that white folk invented minstrel show as a means of parodying black culture while affectionately borrowing from its rich musical and theatrical strengths.
But the truth of the matter is that African-Americans were performing minstrelsy long before the first white entertainers began blackening their faces with burnt cork or greasepaint, dressing in exaggerated costumes, and using racist stereotypes to mock blacks. This crass behavior was both a psychological compensation for many whites, a way of expressing their "superiority," and a means of survival for many white performers, who had to compete with successful black minstrel shows.
Would that such events were long past, but black-faced minstrel shows and their equivalent in mainstream television, movies, and other events, continued in this country until the 1950's, when growing political power for blacks forced racism to began expressing itself using more subtle forms of oppression, such as zoning laws, insurance red-lining, and the always popular gerrymandering of voting districts, not to mention the glass-ceilings of business, politics, and even the entertainment and sports industries.
In the Shadow Theatre Company's current production of The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, we go behind the scenes with a black troupe of performers preparing to entertain a white audience in Hannibal, Missouri during the icy winter of 1895.
There -- set in front of Michael R. Duran's evocative background, around the pot-bellied stove of a private Pullman car side-tracked in snowy wood alongside the Mississippi River -- playwright Carlyle Brown's characters weave a local drama of camaraderie and fear mixed with historical facts and performances from the minstrel genre.
The players, some of them stock characters from the period, have stories to tell about what jump-started their interest in minstrelsy, of some of the great acts they've seen, and how they developed their talent.
|the cast, from left to right:|
Vincent C. Robinson, Kw. Brock Johnson,
Jeffrey Nickelson, Timothy C. Johnson,
Qatis Tarkington, and front row center,
As the lights come up, Doc is pickin' the blues on his guitar and Tambo is tuning his banjo, while Henry recounts being suckered into a bet by a legendary performer who claimed he could sing, dance, and play his horn simultaneously. Then, Doc parades around the room imitating a drum major who got him excited when he was a kid. In the early going, before the script's racial elements get heated, we could be cruising memory lane with Fellini, reminiscing with old hands from another dying art form in The Clowns.
Things begin to turn dark, though, when Henry asks Tambo about a tune he's strummin'. Resistant at first, Tambo eventually opens up under Henry's questioning, describing a tragic love story in which their buddy Percy wrote the song on a railroad journey to Memphis, before being jilted by the woman of his dreams. But Tambo ominously stops before telling us how the angered Percy reacts when he finds out she's recently married.
This theme, of unspoken violence, grows from these early undertones into a full-blown climax as evening falls and the troupe makes preparations for its performance. Suddenly, Percy stumbles in, half-frozen, embroiled in a racial incident that stirs a dread among the men.
Jeffrey Nickelson's entrance, as Percy, turns what had been a pleasant and informative bull-session, where the story-swapping contains as much fiction as truth, into a high-stakes poker game with the performers' lives on the line.
Nichelson is mesmerizing as he galvanizes the show with his magnetic intensity, masterfully telling us a tale that chills our hearts, knowing as we do that it is representative of what an innocent black man might endure as a matter of course, then or now.
The rest of the ensemble is memorable as well; Vince Robinson, as Henry, is a smooth, savvy, storyteller who helps keep the peace among the group; Kw. Brock Johnson is the well-tempered, erudite and authoritative Doc, as comfortable playing Delta blues as offering learned explanations on all matters for his less literate friends; Timothy C. Johnson is the volatile alarmist, Soloman, his temper as quick as his wit, yet still capable of thoughtful consideration; Quatis Tarkington wows as the youngest, Archie, a thirsty-for-knowledge innocent who sings the blues like a journeyman; and Jimmy Walker, the quiet, stoic Tambo, a grand tap dancer and cakewalker.
Like The African Company Presents Richard III, another of Carlyle Brown's historical dramatizations, The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show not only reminds us of the obstacles that white Americans placed before blacks attempting to use their talents to make it in show business, but also the all-pervasive effects of personal and collective racism still active today.
Though white America is no different in this regard than other empires, all having doctored their country's history to show themselves in a more flattering light, this production is nevertheless enlightening -- as a means of understanding and, hopefully, altering contemporary interpersonal race relations, as well as unspoken U.S. domestic and foreign racial policies.
Shadow Theatre Company's production of The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show runs through March 6th at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 14th & Ogden.