Minstrel Shows- Musical Theatre

How did the minstrel show develop? Describe its form, major characters, and musical content. When and why did African Americans become minstrels? In what seminal ways did African American and White minstrel performances differ?


Minstrel shows first emerged in the 1840s as a form of entertainment. In these shows, those in them performed songs and danced in a way that portrayed the stereotypes of Blacks in the United States.

After a decade, minstrel shows all began to follow the same format. The show opened with various songs and parodies of songs. The songs employed were traditional plantation songs and even songs that were original compositions. The third portion of the show featured a closing skit set on a southern plantation. The music in minstrel shows was played on banjos and fiddles. Towards the end of the 19th century, the piano was becoming an increasingly popular instrument and minstrel shows used this instrument for the show’s music.

Even though minstrel shows were about African Americans, White Americans would put on–what we call today–blackface and try to mimic the way that African Americans spoke and acted. Up until the late 1850s, minstrelsy was a white-dominated sphere. Following the Civil War, there were large numbers of African Americans who joined minstrel groups that traveled. African Americans entered the sphere of minstrelsy, which was traditionally viewed as being racist and stereotypical, to change the African American narrative. African American minstrel performers wanted to show audiences how they truly acted and spoke and tried to divert audience eyes and opinions from the negative images of them that Whites created. The shear purpose of African American minstrel shows compared to White minstrel shows as well as the time they emerged are some of the biggest differences between the two shows.

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