Jump Jim Crow: How to Produce Your Own Minstrel Show
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 12, 2009
Last night, the 1942 film Holiday Inn was on television: we don't see it nearly as much as its lesser remake White Christmas nowadays, and I suspect that the main reason that's so is that in Holiday Inn Bing Crosby dons blackface to sing a song about Abraham Lincoln. What's more shocking? The fact that as late as 1942, a blackface scene would even have been included in a Hollywood film? Or that as late as the '60s/'70s, such a scene wasn't cause for alarm in repeated TV showings?
Which brings me, more or less directly, to Jump Jim Crow: How to Produce Your Own Minstrel Show. This new production from Subjective Theatre Company explores the phenomenon of American minstrelsy, which dominated our popular culture for about a century in more ways than anyone cares to remember, and which remains a source of embarrassment and shame even as its fundamental precept—the exploitation of ugly stereotypes about groups of people we think are somehow inferior to us—continues to rake in mucho dough in every sector of the entertainment industry in this country. Every time a big black woman stops the show with a big-voiced gospel-wailing song in an American musical, and every time a sassy black lady—or, for that matter, an effeminate gay man—calls somebody "girlfriend," we dig ourselves deeper in the pit of minstrelsy that we never quite seem to be able to climb out of.
Jesse Cameron Alick, author of Jump Jim Crow, and Donya K. Washington, its director/conceiver, follow a number of young African American theatre artists of their generation (Eric Lockley, Jason Christophe White) in exploring what the Minstrel Show meant and still means in American popular culture. Their show is both a contemporary re-creation of a minstrel show (someone actually says, for example, "Gentlemen, be seated!") and a deconstruction of the form, slyly packaged as a how-to guide for budding theatrical producers. It succeeds first and foremost in making its audience progressively more uncomfortable, not so much because it keeps raising the racist bar, but rather because it doesn't stop: just about everybody has some level of tolerance for bigotry after all (when, for example, we don't tell someone at the water cooler we're offended by one of their "jokes"), but Jump Jim Crow helps us locate how far we are willing to be pushed before we start to balk, to become upset, to be ready for the endless racism to stop already. (Now, if Alick and Washington can figure out how to package their formula and apply it to all aspects of life...)
Jump Jim Crow is a musical, featuring clever original numbers by Justin Levine and traditional songs from minstrel songs such as "Dixie" and "Oh Susannah" and of course the title song, which was written by a white man, T.D. Rice, in the 1830s. They're staged brazenly by Washington and performed by the astonishing, game cast, billed here as "The Ethiopian Serenaders"—five young African American actors who are being asked to sing and say words that must sometimes make them retch on the way out of their mouths: Jill Knox, Kimberlee Walker, Brandon Jones, Lynneisha Ray, and Eddie Wardel. Each of the five portrays a stock character: a tragic mulatto, a "coon" (i.e., a troublemaking, dull-witted fellow), an "Uncle Tom," a "Mammy," and a big black "Buck." In the most insightful section of the show, the ensemble reminds us how alive all of these stereotypes remain in 2009. Two white performers—the very talented Haas Regan and Rusty Buehler—serve as interlocutors/emcees for the proceedings.
Washington's production is thrillingly accomplished, though modest. Steven Gillenwater's choreography is spot-on. Two live musicians, Vinny Commisso (drums) and Justin Levine (keyboard and banjo), play accompaniment throughout, in a mod jazz style that collides intelligently with the old-timey score; they are terrific.
I'm not sure that Alick and Washington solve the "problem" of Minstrelsy as part of our heritage; I'm not sure anyone can. Seeing work like Jump Jim Crow helps us grow out of it, though. Kudos to the Subjective Theatre for this, one of their finest productions yet, and certainly one of their most thought-provoking.