Put on a mask of your own accord, and the effects can be liberating. Have a mask forced on you, and you may feel you’re trapped in a lie, an insult, a challenge to your very identity.
In Donald Byrd’s “The Minstrel Show Revisited,” that double-edged mask is blackface.
For much of the show, from behind their makeup’s hideous tar-slick guise, Spectrum Dance Theater’s performers pick at one of the flashpoints of American society: race.
On the one hand, their blackface is a cringe-inducing reminder of an embarrassing chapter in American entertainment history. On the other hand, it so completely obliterates the identity of the dancers that it leaves them free to milk and expose the grotesqueries for all they’re worth.
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Byrd uses every theatrical tool in the toolbox — dance, song, monologues, docudrama, audience participation — in this revamping of his Bessie Award-winning 1991 show. The key new ingredient of this production is the way it mixes details from the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case with shamefully appealing entertainment.
Serving as the connecting thread for this volatile mix is triple-threat Alex Crozier who, as the show’s trickster-like emcee, sings, acts and dances up a storm. With a sickly smile and a twinkle in his eye, he slyly makes his audience complicit in the dubious antics on-stage. Picture Joel Grey in “Cabaret,” translated to the charged atmosphere of American racial divisions and stereotyping, and you’ll have some idea of what Crozier is up to and how well he does it.
He’s in good company. Shadou Mintrone takes on multiple roles — from an over-the-top Scarlett O’Hara to a deadpan police dispatcher — with edgy incision, while Derek Crescenti and Davione Gordon do stellar work, in dance and mime, as Zimmerman and Martin, respectively.
The showbiz history facet of the production is as important as its societal critique, and some passages are not so much indictments as archival explorations. Byrd himself, in blackface and gray-white fright-wig, serves up one of the most comical set pieces with a minstrel-style parody of highbrow culture — in this case, a ridiculously pedantic lecture on the nursery rhyme, “Old Mother Hubbard.”
Another strategy he uses in the show is to drag racial, ethnic and sexual jokes and put-downs out into the open early on, with the odd result that some of the blackface dance routines that follow, with their showbiz razzmatazz, come almost as light relief.
Sometimes the slurs themselves are the joke. In one tour-de-force turn, Crozier strings them together so cleverly and devilishly that they become a kind of zesty barbed poetry.
On the choreographic side, the show incorporates everything from tap-dance to waltzes. Kicks, cartwheels, splits and back flips figure in the action, too, along with the fleet, rugged partner-work and kick-ass choral movement that are Byrd’s trademarks.
One gripe: The sound on opening night (Mio Morales’ nightmarishly witty score) blared too loudly at first, overwhelming the performers’ voices at times.
Otherwise, “The Minstrel Show,” running close to three hours, is epic in ambition — and so extraordinarily varied that it never gets dull.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org