Musical Theater

The minstrel show, which is a more musically elaborate 4-man team theatrical genre, came about in the 1840’s. The creators of this form were northern White men who used their experience in circus to employ wild gestures, bold makeup, tattered costumes and percussive sounds. Each member of the minstrel group wore blackface makeup, played a African-inspired instrument (fiddle, banjo, bone castanets, tambourine) and performed different songs, dances and skits. The musical and dramatic content of the shows varied during the 1840’s and 50’s, however, the element of satire in the lyrics and skits along with music that appealed to those who favored loud and rhythmically jaunty sounds, stayed the same.

African Americans entered American theater in large number during the 1850’s. Though, to those in the 21st century, this seems very counterproductive, in that engaging in acts and songs that degrade Black people from the core just does not make sense. However, free Blacks who desired to be on stage saw this as an opportunity to amend the message of minstrelsy by substituting a new messenger. The other object was to make money, of course, to help feed their families and educate their children.

Like White minstrel shows, Blacks performers wore black makeup on top of there already brown skin. However, different from White performers, Blacks, through their gestures, tone and words, strived to contradict the claim of “authenticity” that there white counterparts perpetuated. They made a space to demonstrate Black talent and show that they were the ones who were truly authentic. Throughout their skits they campaigned in favor of emancipation, the Union, and different relations between the races. Some Black minstrel even added plantations songs, dances and original composed melodies. This all differed from White minstrel shows that depicted black people as thoughtless, shuffling, superstitious, devious, and servile beings. However, after Blacks got into the picture, they showed just how talented, capable and strong they were, despite what Whites were saying.

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