Minstrel Shows and the History of African American Theater 

Throughout the development of America and the many people colonizing from all over the world who now call it home, African Americans have been discriminated against since the beginning. Though today’s outlook upon all races has become very accepting, it does not diminish the hardships and personal tragedies that took place among the history of millions of African Americans in slavery and their descendants. Because of the discrimination and negative stereotypical views that developed in the minds of those who thought of African Americans as less than human, the introduction of Minstrelsy was easy and very well accepted.

These performances were meant to be comical with white actors dressed in exaggerated “blackface” makeup and tattered clothing (NMAAHC). Actors would perform their parts as African Americans in a very offensive and dehumanizing manner which is what made them so popular to the public of white community. Culture, music, physical traits, speaking dialect and so much more of black lives were over exaggerated in a comedic way for these shows.

Eventually actors of minstrel shows became more than just white men with painted faces and African Americans themselves started taking part in this rising form of performance. Minstrel shows started becoming less of a comedic setback for African Americans in society and more of a foot in the door to the world of theater and arts. Opportunity was taken and African American Theater was able to be created as a product of one of humanities’ most offensive periods of theater history. Minstrel shows helped develop African American Theater and influenced the inclusion of African American playwrights, productions, and performances.

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The first minstrel shows to be performed were in New York around 1830. Actors were known to use cork burnt cork or shoe polish to paint their faces for “blackface” to impersonate African American citizens or slaves (NMAAHC). Performances on stage were common to be humorous skits, one-liners, riddles and more that would portray African Americans as lazy and ignorant by mimicking slaves who live on plantations in the South (American Heritage). The imitations further enhanced the view people in America had on the race as inherently inferior in every way. Minstrelsy was more popular and known in the Northern and Midwest states of the U.S. where people were less likely to interact with African Americans on a regular basis (NMAAHC). In 1832, Thomas D. Rice, a white minstrel performer also known as the “Father of Minstrelsy”, created a character he named “Jim Crow” (Desmond-Harris). He was observing a black stable hand working while he was singing a cultural song and dancing. Rice had taken influence by the stable hand’s actions thus creating Jim Crow as the first popular blackface character. Jim Crow was an influential character who connected blackface to political and social repression upon African Americans (Desmond-Harris). This is where the name of the Jim Crow laws comes from that allowed racial segregation in the U.S.

Like Thomas D. Rice, many minstrel performers would study African Americans and their culture by sitting with black people in their homes or huts on plantations to strengthen their acts and find convincing character qualities. There were two types of minstrel character stereo types that were most popular: plantation slaves who expressed happiness and frolicked, and free African Americans living in urban cities who came off as foolish and ignorant (NMAAHC). The exaggeration of African American culture and the stereotypes performed took away the scary truth of what slaves had to endure and made reality tolerable and regrettably entertaining. These shows had gotten so popular that by 1845 it had been made into its own subindustry. Popular actors such as Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney as took part in the “blackface” popularity (NMAAHC). During this time, before the Civil War, black people were completely excluded from the performance industry because of the racial segregation. However, after the Civil War, a large number of African Americans were able to perform in the show business as minstrel performers (American Heritage). Black performers ultimately replaced white actors in minstrel shows.

A black minstrel by the name of Tom Fletcher stated that “it was a big break when show business first started [for blacks]” which also had the advantage of traveling across the country to perform (American Heritage). At first black performers would wear “blackface” because white audiences felt that they were “not black enough” (Nhial). Shortly after, performers were able to perform without their makeup and minstrel shows were open for African Americans to perform freely. The Callender’s became the first black minstrel group to perform without makeup in 1876 (Nhail). Other groups of black minstrel performers, like the Callender’s, started their own traveling performances without any makeup and were able to express their musical and acting skills still with the minstrel style. Minstrel performances maintained its popularity up to the 1880’s as new media spread minstrel performances among the radio and television (NMAAHC). After the turn of the twentieth century, minstrel shows became more and more unpopular but African Americans were still included in the show business which had started to develop major changes.

William C. Handy, the composer of one of the first blues style songs title “St. Louis Blues”, stated that “because of minstrelsy, black people became a part of the American show business” (American Heritage). African America citizens started writing, producing, and acting in black musicals, plays, and concerts.

The first known play written by an African American was “King Shotaway” by James Brown in 1832 which was based on the Black Carib war in 1796 (Hill). Not too long after, the first black play to be published by William Wells Brown in 1858 was called “The Escape; or, A Leap of Freedom” (Britannica). Despite these early publications and writings by African Americans, Black Theater did not flourish until the 1920’s and 30’s during the Harlem Renaissance (Britannica). Black Americans began forming performance groups, writing plays, composing music, and everything there is to the theater industry.

The first known black theater troupe was called The African Company which performed their own productions as well as popular classics such as Shakespeare (Hill). Many of the troupes and performers were established in populous cities like New York City, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The development of Black Theater played a vital role in the establishment of African American freedom and citizenship. It gave blacks the ability to express their cultures and backgrounds openly to the rest of the world. Paul Robeson for example was the son of a former slave who had begun his journey in Black Theater and established himself as America’s foremost black actor (Britannica). Other’s such as Garland Anderson and Langston Hughes had the opportunity to produce plays on Broadway where Hughes’ “Mulatto” won in 1935 (Britannica).

By the end of World War II, black theater progressively became more reflecting upon black culture and symbolism. Storylines included the hardships that African Americans had to endure and their painful pasts were expressed through their works. Like “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorrain Hansberry in 1958 and other successful productions portrayed these hardships from the past as well as the current hardships they dealt with when trying to fit into society and being degraded (Britannica). Hansberry became a wonderful role model to the African American community in theater who influenced voices to be heard through art and several playwrights. “A Raisin in the Sun” focused on an African American family who is struggling to maintain financial stability. It reveals the difficulties they faced as a family and how those challenges impacted their lives at home with each other. Even though African Americans were free citizens and are not legally discriminated against today, society still did not truly accept them and continued to discriminate in hateful ways. Certain discriminatory cases such as Plessy v Ferguson of 1896 initiated the passing of laws that segregated blacks from whites.

Separate facilities were made for black Americans that were required to use only those provided. It further enhanced the “separate but equal” ideal. Black Americans had to use different bathrooms, drinking fountains, and even sit at the back of the bus. They experienced the worst of life during this time of hateful pushback from the white society who claimed to be the “natural rulers”. White discriminators would throw things at blacks, scream at them on the street, terrorize them, and even go so far as to murder them during the late nineteenth century and even after. Black Theater ironically allowed African Americans to expose the truths about what they had endured in the past as well as the present despite their ability to partake in theater was a product of the minstrel shows which took their culture and situations as a joke. To help black Americans gain more advantage into the theater industry, councils began to organize to put an end to racial stereotypes in theater and expose playwrights into the mainstream (Britannica).

At the start of the 1960’s, black theater became more defiant and blunt in terms of symbolizing the effect of racial discrimination. A good example is Amiri Black’s play titled “Dutchman” in 1964. “Dutchman” is a short play with two main characters being a white female and a black male. Their interactions are rather friendly and awkward at first but at the end, the female character murders the male character because of his refusal to her commands. This story symbolized the emotions that Black and many other African Americans must feel when living in America. It is a fearful turn of events in the play but it is a fearful reality for all who feel the power that discrimination can have on their daily lives. During this time, black theater started exploding and over 600 new black theater companies were formed (Nadler).

Some of these companies were not in business long but include National Black Theater, the New Federal, and the New Lafayette Theater which lasted from 1966 to 1972. The first known black theater company was named African Grove Theater in Manhattan with William Brown as the manager and James Hewlett as the leading actor (Goldfarb). The African Grove Theater company became very popular and gave a lot of actors, such as Ira Aldridge, their debuts. Shortly after the African Grove Companies’ closing, African American actors were given limited options when pursuing a career in the theater industry but it was quick to bounce back as stated before during the early twentieth century and companies still continue to open for African American exposure in the United States. National Black Theater is a company that was developed in 1986 by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer (Mission and History).

This company is one of the oldest open and has given opportunity to lot of African Americans in the theater industry. Their business runs on the morals of Teer and her life mission to provide community service through her art. Other missions that the company has stated on their website includes educating the public about true African American culture, inform the social issues that the U.S. has that impacts communities, and provide a safe place for artists of color to thrive in (Missions and History). With the several companies of black theater opening and the popularity rising, it started to develop and fit into the American mainstream of theater. The black community became able to tell their stories in the form of art and have audiences, of different races, there to listen to them.

People began to understand that the African American community is not as most of American thought and were influenced to view because of the nature of minstrel shows. Minstrelsy became history and black theater became a popular way for people to learn. The new black theater nature allows African Americans to enrich their cultures and show them off to the public, inform the public about the struggles of their past, and pride themselves on the platform that they deserve to show the world who they are. August Wilson, a popular American playwright said that “Theater, as a powerful conveyer of human values, has often led us through the impossible landscape of American class, regional and racial conflicts, providing fresh insights and fragile but enduring bridges of fruitful dialogue” (Morris).

Today America’s theater industry includes not only whites and blacks but also the whole spectrum of races from all over the world. The inclusion of African American culture into American theater has influenced and allowed people of other races to be a part of something grand. Currently there are numerous skillful actors in America who set out to do what they love and provide impactful and meaningful messages to their audiences. A very well-known actor by the name of Morgan Freeman made his debut after performing in an all-black production of Hello-Dolly in 1967 when black theater was at its peak. Afterwards, Freeman continued his acting career and starred in a lot of popular performances and movies.

Freeman performed in a movie called The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 that won him his third Oscar and other powerful films that gave intense messages of hope and not giving up. Morgan Freeman is an inspirational soul that America has today to lead the next generation of actors to success by inspiration and pride. Other amazing celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington grew up during the peak of African American theater and strived to become a part of it. These people, who some might arguably say are more popular in America than some white actors, show our country that anyone can do and be anything they want.

Despite America’s history and struggle of power between races, today we have a great nation which allows everyone a chance at the lives they deserve regardless of their ancestral background. We have come from dehumanizing people simply based on the color of their skin to accepting people for who they are and loving the diversity they bring to the country.

Every great story has a dark past and African American Theater has grown into something much greater and more wonderful than the dark past it stemmed from. Minstrelsy was formed as a way to dehumanize and make fun of the people who were forced to build this country with their bare hands. Today, those people expose their truths, feelings, cultures, concerns, and fears through the world of theater. America should recognize this tremendous change as an accomplishment of the people thought there is still a lot of room for improvement. People may not feel the fear that Lorraine Hansberry or Amiri Baraka felt and expressed in their plays A Raisin in the Sun and Dutchman, but there is still some racial tension residing within our country as TJ Young was influenced to write his play named No. 6 in 2017. No. 6 was written based on the Cincinnati race riots of 2001. Other riots and racial tensions have broken out in America that still continue to put fear in the lives of those who are still discriminated against a small percentage of our citizens.

Like TJ Young, African American playwrights continue to use their struggles in America to write and perform plays so the public may listen to what they have to say. Every citizen in America has a story to tell and a diverse background from which they came. All of these voices should be allowed to be heard without hesitation. American theater gives playwrights and famous actors and activists a chance to get their voice out there. Some may not have to struggle as hard as others however the diversity with which America has undergone has influenced the acceptance of all. As for the African American community, they had to struggle for what they have and deserve to be heard for it. Minstrel shows of America’s past gave African Americans their stepping stone into the theatrical world which now allows their voice to speak louder than the ones that tried to crush them. And for that, African American citizens should be proud of who they are and what they do within their theater careers and interests.

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Minstrel Shows and the History of African American Theater . (2021, Dec 26). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/minstrel-shows-and-the-history-of-african-american-theater/

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