jim crow -- 6/5/23
Today's selection -- from Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical by Laurie Winer. Vaudeville, Bert Williams, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, and a character performance called “Jump Jim Crow”:
"At the height of vaudeville, around 1915, … most routines were, in the fashion of the time, appallingly racist and sexist. Whether Black or white, women were portrayed as nagging, avaricious, frigid, and stupid, and it was not unusual for a sketch to end with a husband shooting his wife. Fair targets also included the mentally ill, gay people, little people, and the obese. But the artists that we still discuss today -- whether Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, or the Marx Brothers -- stretched the status quo by challenging the stereotypes they traded in.
"For African Americans, who sat only in the balcony if they were admitted at all, pretending to be someone else was not an option. Minstrelsy and its attendant reality were inescapable. Black actors on the vaudeville stage almost exclusively portrayed characters who were dumb, lazy, or dishonest. Even the most successful Black performers, like the Bahama-born Williams, could not playfully switch identities like European artists; they were forced to double down on their Blackness by a bizarre expectation that they, like Caucasian actors playing Black people, cover their skin with a sticky mixture of burned cork and oil or water. The 'more serious' of the white impersonators called themselves Ethiopian delineators or dialecticians and considered themselves above the fray (it was in reaction to these designations that comedians Bert Williams and George Waller billed themselves as 'Two Real Coons').
"Anyone who doubts the primacy of popular culture in shaping the life of a nation need only recall that the term 'Jim Crow' -- which came to mean any kind of discrimination against African Americans, physical or psychic, is the name of the character that launched blackface and minstrelsy. Crow was invented by Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a traveling white actor who, probably in 1828, spotted an elderly Black man singing and dancing a jig of his own design in a Louisville stable owned by someone named Crow. The enslaved man, whose back was hunched and whose left leg was crooked, ended each of his stanzas with a little jump. When he landed on his lame side, it 'set his heel a-rockin'.' This anonymous dance became one of the most influential performances in history.
|Williams, c. 1921|
"Wearing the man's rags and applying burned cork to his face, Rice incorporated the routine, which he called 'Jump Jim Crow,' into his traveling show. Word spread as he continued to perform the act in Baltimore and Philadelphia before bringing it to New York's Bowery Theatre on November 12, 1832, an event that contemporary critic Wesley Morris refers to as 'the night that American popular culture was born.' On the centenary of that performance the New York Times published a tribute to it by Frederic Sanborn. After Rice introduced 'Jump Jim Crow,' reports Sanborn, 'the orchestra pit and the four circling balconies rocked and cheered,' and patrons 'forgot even to munch peanuts and throw the shells about.' They brought Rice back for six encores. In closing, Sanborn calls Rice, who died in 1860, 'almost the dean of American theatre' and a man who 'never forfeited the respect of the public or the goodwill of his fellow men.'
"How to explain the hideous encumbrance of blackface, employed by both white and African American actors for more than a hundred years? First and foremost, it iterated the reality that 'the black was the truly inassimilable individual in society,' as Camille Forbes writes in her biography of Bert Williams. The expectation was that white audiences simply would not accept Black actors onstage outside the stock roles they were expected to play, which were further exaggerated by the cork. Seeing Black artists unadorned, playing characters endowed with full human dignity, would obliterate any argument for the historical necessity of slavery, thereby exposing Caucasians as perpetrators of a horrific crime. White America was not willing to contemplate that truth in the first decades of the new century.
"By 1910, audiences recognized Bert Williams as the funniest performer on earth. For his part Williams explained, with terrible understatement, that it was 'not a disgrace to be black. Just inconvenient.' As a young man he teamed up with George Walker and together they worked the national minstrel circuit. While acutely aware that Black roles should be better than they were, Williams and Walker could not afford to ignore the reality 'that white people are always interested in what they call "darky" singing and dancing,' reports Forbes. The taller and lighter-skinned of the two, Williams felt it necessary to significantly 'black up,' making his lips so white and huge they took up the bottom part of his face. He played a version of the shuffling 'plantation darkie,' who was lazy and sly but also loveable. The actor radiated a conspicuous intelligence and often slipped out of dialect, making it clear that his 'real' voice was the straightforward, educated-sounding one that emerged between characters. Williams humanized whatever stereotype he played; he was such an original that theatergoers could still see his humanity under all the cork. And so Black artists challenged and reshaped stereotypes from undercover, as it were."