Minstrel show

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, is an indigenous form of American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, usually performed by white people in blackface.

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1906 postcard advertising a minstrel show


Lewis Hallam was probably the first actor to perform in blackface when he did an impression of a drunken black man in the play The Padlock in 1769. His performance proved popular, and similar acts began appearing in other plays and in circuses. Meanwhile, other performers were playing what they claimed to be "Negro music" in the streets of major cities on so-called black instruments such as the banjo. Performers added this music and dance as a central part of their blackface acts, and the public and press dubbed them "minstrels". Many popular entertainers got into the act, including George Washington Dixon and Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice.

The minstrel show as a complete evening's entertainment was invented when Dan Emmett and the Virginia Minstrels gave their first performance at the New York Bowery Amphitheatre in 1843. Shortly thereafter, E.P. Christy founded the Christy Minstrels, who would establish the template into which minstrel shows would fall for the next few decades. These two groups dominated the scene until the Civil War, touring the same circuits as opera companies, circuses, and European itinerant entertainers.

The rise of the minstrel show coincided with the growing abolitionist movement in the North. Northerners were concerned for the oppressed blacks of the South, but most of them had no idea how these slaves lived day-to-day. The minstrels provided the North with a kind of knowledge of the blacks, albeit a greatly romanticized and exaggerated one. Slaves were shown as happy, cheerful simpletons, always ready to sing and dance and to please their master. The message to Northern audiences was clear: don't worry about the slaves; they are happy with their lot in life.

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Minstrels in London

Minstrels in London, circa 1880

The blackface also served as a sort of fool's mask, allowing the performers to lampoon virtually anything without offending the audience. This social criticism became more and more prevalent in the minstrel shows during the Civil War in the 1860s. Gradually, social commentary began to replace traditional elements of the minstrel show. Minstrels took on a much more decidedly abolitionist stance, and performers such as The Fighting Hutchinson Family became popular advocates of abolition, women's rights, and the temperance movement.

During the Civil War, black performers began to perform in minstrel shows. However, in keeping with convention, they still corked their faces just as the white performers did. All-black troupes such as Callender's Georgia Minstrels toured the North throughout the war, and white managers at war's end signed contracts with many of these troupes. The black troupes often featured woman performers, as well. One of the few things the minstrel shows did to help the lot of blacks in the United States was to give them their first legitimate opportunity to enter show business.

After the Civil War, minstrel troupes grew bigger and bigger as each troupe tried to outdo the others (J.H. Haverly's United Mastodon Minstrels had over 100 cast members, for example). Many troupes began touring Europe, and scenery often grew lavish and expensive. These changes made many minstrel shows unprofitable, and traditional troupes complained loudly about them. Many original themes of the show had been lost in the Civil War social commentary, and audiences began to dwindle. Finally, new entertainments such as vaudeville appeared in the 1890s. The minstrel show had all but disappeared by 1900.


The Christy Minstrels established the basic structure of the minstrel show in the 1840s. The show was divided into three major sections. During the first part, the entire troupe sang and danced onto stage, arranging themselves in a semi-circle and sitting after being instructed by the Interlocutor, a sort of host for the show. Various stock characters always sat in the same positions: the Interlocutor sat in the middle, flanked by Tambo and Bones who served as the endmen or cornermen. The Interlocutor and the endmen would then exchange jokes and perform a variety of humorous or maudlin songs. Finally, each member of the company would perform a solo dance or other act in the center of the semicircle during a section called the walk-around, cakewalk, or hoedown.

The second portion of the show, called the olio, had more of a variety show structure. Performers would dance, play instruments, do acrobatics, and demonstrate other amusing talents. Parodies of European-style entertainments were offered. Sometimes, European performance troupes would actually perform themselves. Blackface actors would often deliver stump speeches during the olio. These were long orations, often about society and politics, during which the dim-witted character tried to speak eloquently, only to deliver an endless string of malapropisms, jokes, and unintentional puns. Nevertheless, these stump speeches often delivered biting social criticism.

After the olio, the afterpiece was performed. In the early days of the minstrel show, this was often a skit set on a Southern plantation that usually included a number of musical and dance numbers. In later years, performers began to perform burlesque renditions of other plays; both Shakespeare and contemporary playwrights were common targets. The afterpiece allowed the minstrels to introduce new characters, some of whom became quite popular and spread from troupe to troupe.

Stock characters

The minstrel show relied on a few stock characters, each representing a specific black archetype: the coon, the darky, the wench and the mammy; but there were others, including the tom and the pickaninny. The white actors who portrayed these characters spoke an ersatz, exaggerated form of Black English Vernacular.

Thomas "Daddy" Rice brought the earliest of these archetypes to the American stage when he began to perform the Jump Jim Crow dance. He claimed to have learned the dance by watching an old, limping black man who worked as a stable hand. The man was dancing and singing the lyrics "Wheel about and turn about and do jus' so/Eb'ry time I wheel about I jump Jim Crow." The dance became extremely popular, and Rice toured the country performing it in blackface. Other early minstrel performers quickly adopted Rice's "Jim Crow," and the character would later give his name to the racial segregation laws of the 1870s.

Jim Crow continued be a feature of some minstrel shows, but he was eventually replaced by two characters named for the instruments they played: Tambo (for the tambourine) and Bones (for the bones, a rhythm instrument similar to castanets). These two characters served as the endmen and were shown to be simple-minded and unsophisticated by playing them off the Interlocutor, a white man who spoke in aristocratic English and used a much larger vocabulary than his fellow performers. The humor of these exchanges came from the misunderstandings on the part of the black characters when talking to the white Interlocutor. A typical exchange went something like this:

Interlocutor: "He must have been a doctor of some standing."

Bones: "No, he wasn't standing. He was sitting on a three-legged stool."

Two, stock, female characters were the sexually provocative wench and the matronly, often overbearing mammy, performed by a male performer in female clothes.

Zip Coon was a common character in the afterpiece. He was a northern urban black man trying to live above his station by mimicking white, upper-class speech and dress, usually to no good effect.

These characters played a powerful role in shaping assumptions of the day about African-Americans in particular and blacks, generally. The racist archetypes blackface minstrelsy helped create persist in racial stereotypes to this day.

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