In Donald Byrd’s “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” to be performed in Seattle this week by Spectrum Dance Theater, the performers are in blackface, as you might guess, and the subject is race. The tunes are catchy and the dance is dazzling, but the stereotypical poses the dancers strike can be cringe-inducing.
Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director, has a reputation for leading audiences into volatile territory, whether to do with sexuality, politics or social issues. His work is sometimes described as “pushing buttons.”
When The 5th Avenue Theatre collaborated with Spectrum Dance Theater in staging “Oklahoma!” in 2012, for instance, considerable controversy erupted over the decision to cast African-American actor Kyle Scatliffe as the ostracized Jud.
“The Minstrel Show Revisited” — a collage of obsolete African-American imagery and references to current, racially charged events — may well trigger a similar reaction. Byrd believes the production has to give the catchy melodies, the ringing tambourines and the snappy dance skills their energetic due, or the audience won’t be placed in the dilemma that makes “The Minstrel Show” work.
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As he explains it: “The dilemma is: ‘I’m enjoying myself, but should I be enjoying this?’ … There’s a pleasure factor. There’s an entertainment factor.”
Vivian Phillips, director of marketing and communications at Seattle Theatre Group, led a panel discussion that followed a “Minstrel Show” excerpt staged last November. She sees Byrd’s work as anything but provocative for provocation’s sake.
“I have no doubt,” she stressed in a recent interview, “that Donald is genuinely probing us and encouraging us to look at ourselves, our history, and the experiences we are having every single day.
“Yes, Donald pushes buttons too, and they are buttons that need to get pushed. We tend to want to believe that our politeness is a reflection of our true feelings when it is not.”
“The Minstrel Show” was first performed by Donald Byrd/The Group in New York in 1991 and won a Bessie Award — the New York dance world’s highest honor — in 1992. Five years later, theater trailblazer Anna Deveare Smith (“Twilight: Los Angeles”) invited Byrd to Harvard University to further explore the show’s possibilities.
Before his residence there, Byrd had struggled with how to engage a sometimes reluctant audience in pieces that were challenging and civic-minded.
When he incorporated transcripts from the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas into the show, something clicked, and he realized that each new iteration of “The Minstrel Show” could benefit from bringing in whatever was “happening topically around race.”
This new Seattle production was triggered by the Trayvon Martin case and draws heavily on police transcripts concerning the 2012 shooting of Martin, a Florida teenager, by George Zimmerman.
“Again here is our country divided by a race issue,” Byrd says. “ ‘The Minstrel Show,’ I think, provides a great opportunity to encourage dialogue.”
In November, Spectrum’s dancers revealed they had different degrees of discomfort with working in blackface. Some had to overcome major misgivings, while others said it acted as a kind of liberating disguise that let them address incendiary subject matter head-on.
What local audiences will make of it remains uncertain.
“Donald,” Phillips says, “recognizes all too well that people don’t say what they mean here, nor do people here generally have any level of real comfort with hard truths. He’s a truth-teller, and his instrument is dance and theater.”
Byrd’s work isn’t just sociological but concerned with dance history. Much of American musical-theater dance vocabulary evolved from minstrel dance routines, he says, coming to us via the loose-limbed “eccentric dancing” of early 20th-century vaudeville performers.
The choreography in “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” he says, is “a combination of real dances, authentic dances and made-up dances.”
Race isn’t the only thing driving the show, Byrd points out. “It also deals with sexual orientation — what I call the ways that people are ‘otherized.’ ”
Ethnic jokes and slurs of all kinds, some researched by the dancers, some solicited from the audience, are brought out in the open in the show. New York audiences at the first production, Byrd recalls, gave him his cue on how to handle the Pandora’s box he was opening.
“I asked audience members to write down jokes and give them to me, and then I read them,” he says. “Some of them were so unbelievably horrible, and I made some comment or made a face or something — and somebody in the audience said, ‘No editorializing.’ ”
His job, he realized, was just to report back rather than comment on what he was getting. “The show was enough of a comment. It didn’t need additional commentary, in a way.”
That approach may have worked in New York, but at a 1992 La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse show, it almost caused a riot. “This lady said to me, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ And then somebody said, ‘Uff, I can’t stand this. I can’t stand watching this.’ Then somebody yelled across to that person, ‘Well, if you don’t like this part, you can take a bathroom break.’ ”
After someone called out, “We don’t have these kinds of problems here,” Byrd stopped the show and talked directly with the audience for 10 or 15 minutes, before continuing. “That was probably the most dramatic response I got.”
The discomfort the show induces is intense, Phillips concedes. “That blackface really is scary … to me, particularly up close. … Nobody looks like shoe polish!”
At the November panel discussion, Byrd revealed that the blackface, significantly, comes off later in the show.
In any event, as he recently wrote in an open letter to those unsettled by the marketing images for this production, “A complicated and contradictory response is an appropriate one.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org