Musical Theater

How did the minstrel show develop? Describe its form, major characters, and musical content. When and why did African Americans and White minstrel performances differ?

The minstrel shows developed in America due to the rise in popularity of theater and also the racial issues that were taking place. Although theater was becoming very popular African Americans were being discriminated against in theaters in some major cities. Performances in theaters were depictions of everyday life so when blacks were represented onstage it was in a very stereotypical viewpoint, this type of performance became known as minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were made popular by Thomas Rice. He was famous in the early 19thcentury and he performed solo in blackface. Rice was famous for performing the song “Jim Crow” although the origins of the particular song are uncertain.

Minstrel shows developed from individual performance into groups of about four people. Although the white actors were performing in blackface, often they did not feature topics such as race or the social conditions of African Americans. The white actors in blackface typically played instruments that were socially connected with African Americans at the time. The music that was featured in the shows was very rhythmic and featured strong percussions. The actors also danced in a way that they felt matched the music and also mocking the way in which African Americans danced at the time.

Following the Civil War, in the mid 1850s, there was a rise in African Americans in popular theater. African Americans begin to participate in minstrel shows and traveling minstrel groups. The major difference between the white minstrel shows and the African American minstrel performances was African Americans were attempting to right the wrongs of white minstrel shows. White minstrel shows portrayed a stereotypical view of African Americans and this was not an image that was acceptable for African Americans. Also, throughout their performances African American actors were advocating for Emancipation and various advancements for African Americans.

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