Jump Jim Crow
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 17, 2008
I bet most Americans in 2008 have no idea that the phrase "Jim Crow" (as in "Jim Crow Laws") comes from a popular song of the early 19th century. For focusing audiences on a lost aspect of American history, Henry Meyerson's new play Jump Jim Crow performs an invaluable service.
This short two-act play starts in a New York City theatre in 1840, where Thomas D. Rice is appearing in his popular variety act "Jump Jim Crow," a song and dance that he performs in blackface. (There's information about the original song, including its lyrics, on Wikipedia.) Meyerson fictionalizes Rice's story with the addition of the character Jack Washington, a free Negro who has been Rice's lifelong friend and who writes the act that Rice performs.
When we meet the two men, Tom Rice is on his way to becoming rich and famous by performing this demeaning caricature of black men (the minstrel show, which will codify the character introduced in "Jump Jim Crow," is less than a decade away; it will become a hugely influential part of American pop culture).
Jack reads about a slave in Georgia who has been murdered by a gang of white men because he couldn't do the "Jump Jim Crow" dance. This gets Jack to thinking about what his lucrative work is doing to his people—possibly even members of his own extended family.
The play then enters the realm of fantasy/alternative history with the arrival of Senator Strom Thurmond from the future. The deceased Thurmond has come to thank Rice for his song and the centuries of bigotry it helped institutionalize. Rice doesn't understand what Thurmond really means, but Jack does. In Act Two, Meyerson flashes the play forward to 1850 to a meeting between the now estranged Jack and Tom, with explosive results.
The play runs a brisk 70 minutes or so under the assured direction of Tom Thornton (who also portrays Thurmond). Michael Gnat is excellent as Rice, performing himself in blackface (which is such a taboo act nowadays) and finding the innocent and striving good nature in a character who is easy to label as cruelly racist. He also performs the "Jim Crow" song and another Rice blackface routine with real panache. Opposite, as Jack, Lawrence Floyd is dignified and admirable.
Unfortunately, Meyerson places the main conflict—whether Jack should feel culpable for the killing of the Georgia slave—too early in the proceedings, which dilutes its dramatic impact. And in a way, the character of Thurmond feels too much like a contrivance—I wondered if there was a way for Meyerson to arrive at his worthy conclusion without having to dredge Thurmond from his grave. Nevertheless, Jump Jim Crow is interesting for the history it reclaims and the important questions it poses.