Sparking discussion: The Minstrel Show puts race front and center. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum.
Donald Byrd’s Bessie Award–winning The Minstrel Show has a history of creating controversy: Past performances have even sparked shouting matches between audience members. His Spectrum Dance Theater premieres a restaging of the 1991 work—the centerpiece of the company’s season, “America: Sex, Race, & Religion”—February 20–22 at Seattle’s Cornish Playhouse. The update is inspired by the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial and acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman. “The fact that I’ve chosen the Martin/Zimmerman shooting and trial is enough comment on why I’m reviving the piece,” says Byrd. “Americans in general are uncomfortable talking about race.”
Performed by both white and black actors during the Civil War era, minstrel shows used stock characters, music, comedy and blackface to lampoon black culture. The first act of Byrd’s version, with music ranging from Scott Joplin to rapper Le1f (new for 2014), presents this format traditionally to give the audience historical context.
Act Two uses minstrel shows to confront current racial prejudices—in one now notorious segment, audience members and Byrd read audience-submitted racial jokes aloud. The new version includes a recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call the night of Martin’s death, as well as his public interviews. In this section, Byrd says the movement embodies Zimmerman’s unemotional tone, and aims to provoke the audience to face uncomfortable realities about race in America. “What I’m hoping to discover,” he says, “is the nature of dialogue—how we talk about race. That can never be a reality until we are able to have a serious, honest, fearless conversation about it.”