Musical Theater: Minstrel Shows

Musical Theater is defined as an area of drama in which singing and dancing play an essential part. For relevancy to African American music, we will be examining minstrel shows.

Minstrel Shows emerged from European traditions of masking and carnival. Those traditions carried over into the US in the 1830’s with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. The commodification of this degrading entertainment form saw its peak post-Civil War, in the era of Jim Crow. It was one of white, middle-class America’s past times. During this time of race-based hatred, whites wore blackface and played off of the stereotypes of black culture and living. Surprisingly enough, blacks also participated in and attended minstrel shows for entertainment. They, too had to wear blackface when they weren’t “black enough”, further exaggerating and mocking their own features.

As stated earlier, minstrel shows were the white commentary/ interpretations of black living. The shows would feature parodies of traditional plantation songs played on the fiddle or banjo, and a large part of the shows were set on southern plantations. Later on, the piano would be introduced as a staple in minstrel shows, which aligned with the rise and popularity of ragtime.

There were a substantial amount of small minstrel groups popping up all over the south at the peak of its entertainment life, but more popular groups include the Virginia Minstrels, Christy’s Minstrels, and the Ethiopian Serenaders.

With the Civil Rights movement, these shows became less popular because of the controversial content of minstrel shows. Looking back at the history of televised production, we can see their influence in almost everything from cartoons, songs, and talk shows alike.

See an example of minstrel shows and the depths of their influence below:

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