1982 Donald Byrd has headed Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, Washington, and
the work of the dancers in this company meets the standards of his previous
companies, no mean feat. Mr. Byrd has long been a socially engaged
choreographer, and this evening length piece, a revisiting of a 1991 work is a
continuation of his engagement.
this piece, the performers appear in black body suits, curly, unruly black
wigs, black faces with enormous white eyes, enormous white mouths, gloves, and
spats. They appear to be some sort of strange toys, not human at all.
a skirt, or high heels, are added for the women, or a cute little bow, or tie
around the neck for both men and women. Again, the details add to the idea of
some sort of strange doll, certainly not a human being. Their dancing is that
of floppy dollies. The different performers are not identifiable, which
becomes unsettling and is part of the point Mr. Byrd is making.
one exception to the lack of identifiability is the master of ceremonies, who
manages, or is allowed, to let emotion come through his blackface and who also
uses his body to comment on what is happening on stage.
dancing was quite similar from section to section, although various musical
styles from the 19th century were used. There were many high kicks,
and much doll-like flopping, belied by the many difficult lifts and leaps,
seeming to come out of nowhere and executed just as effortlessly as everything
else. Mr. Byrd has never suffered his dancers to be slouches. Again, the
master of ceremonies was allowed to be an individual, playing with different
accents - upper class, lower class, Black, white, and he could consistently be
heard and understood. There was a very long lecture, done by a Mammy-figure,
on Mother Hubbard, showing how illiterate the performer was. Presumably we
were to consider why this monolog was once thought to be funny.
further bring the topic home, there was audience participation. Audience
members were invited onto the stage to tell the most recent racist joke they
had heard. Mr. Byrd himself served as the interlocutor and he rehearsed these
people in how to address him, as Mr. Jooohnson, before they told their jokes.
He then asked the audience members who had not come up onto the stage to note
down, during intermission, a racist joke, some of which he read from the stage
as the dancers were taking off their makeup later on in the show. Mr. Byrd
passed no judgment and made no comment, letting the jokes stand for themselves,
and a poor job they did: Only one or two were even vaguely funny from any point
of view, and most were simply mean and mean-spirited. Did they make people
uncomfortable? One hopes so.
Byrd has obviously given great thought to this piece. Pre-concert
presentations were hosted by various academics, speaking on stereotypes and
blackface minstrelsy. In addition to his appearances throughout the concert,
there was a post-concert conversation with Mr. Byrd each evening.
this reviewer, the most powerful part of the piece was the reading, by two of
the dancers, police transcripts: first, of the police radio operator speaking
to George Zimmerman, telling him not to follow Trayvon Martin, second of a
police interrogator trying to get a straight story out of (or perhaps helping)
officer Darren Wilson after he had murdered Michael Brown. The two readers
were placed downstage in harsh white light. Upstage, the other performers were
seated in a semicircle, with less illumination, and with the master of
ceremonies, still in his blackface, at their center. All had tambourines, with
which they added punctuation to the words, or sometimes acted out movements
from the stories. It was totally theatrical and totally thrilling.
all that had come before was prologue, so that this minimalist section had the
power of the buildup of the rest of the evening. Still, the performance was
long: two and a half hours plus intermission. It could have been cut, the
points made more succinctly, rather than extended. Still, to see theater that
makes us think and that makes us uncomfortable with our prejudices is always a
note on the casting: It, too, challenged our stereotypes: Except for one
African American dancer, everyone was white. The point could have been made
with more dancers of color and to have had at least one African American female
dancer would have been welcome.
Byrd/Spectrum Dance Theater
Minstrel Show Revisited
28th, 29th, 30th 2015
Center for the Performing Arts
LaGuardia Place at Washington Square South
York, NY 10012.
$30 – $55 and may be purchased
Phone: 212.998.4941, or
the NYU Skirball Center Box Office: Tuesday-Saturday, 12:00–6:00 pm.