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The Bride Wielded a Razor: Images ofWomen on the Blackface Stage of James Mclntyre and Thomas Heath Leslie Pasternack A newspaper advertisement for James Mclntyre and Thomas Heath's 1919 musical play Hello,Alexander!describes it as a "Gorgeous Musical Extravaganza"featuring"50 Talented Singing and Dancing Broadway Beauties." The advertisement contains only one, hand-drawn image: a chorine performs a high kick, one lifted arm partially overlapping the name of "Mclntyre," with the tip of her outstretched dancing shoe almost grazing the underside of the e. The chorine's costume exposes long, shapelylegs, and apparentlybare arms, shoulders,throat and décolletage, topped by diminutive facial features.1 To look at this image and the descriptive text, one would think that the focal point of Hello, Alexander! was a collection of pretty white girls presenting the slightly risqué leg show ofearlytwentieth-centurypopular theater.This assumption is halfcorrect,for the chorus girls strongly appealed to the predominantly white, male, middle-class audiences of vaudeville. Mclntyre and Heath needed this appeal because the true centerpiece oftheir decadesold act—blackface minstrelsy—was losing popularity quickly. The "Alexander" ofthe play's title was the same blackface character who had first appeared, with his partner "Henry," during the 1870s. Mclntyre and Heath's introduction of white chorus girls to their blackface act was symptomatic ofthe decline of minstrelsy; it also provides an entry into an interrogation of the blackface duo's career-long play on race and gender. Mclntyre and Heaths long career began during the height of blackface minstrelsy, ran through the glory days of Tony Pastor's variety, and survived into the roaring 1920s environment of 505 506Comparative Drama vaudeville and burlesque, requiring the duo to adapt to changing theatrical conventions. Although the delineations of Henry and Alexander remained the chief attraction of their act, Mclntyre and Heath developed spectacular framing devices for these characters by incorporating supporting players and large female choruses. These dazzling elements layered newobjects ofhumor and desire upon the established racialfoundation ofminstrelsy.2 Although their partnership was extremelyproductive,Mclntyre and Heath have attracted little attention in recent scholarship. Their act is noted in such anecdotalhistories as Douglas Gilbert's 1940volume American Vaudeville,3 but Henry and Alexander have not figured into theoretical analyses ofblackface minstrelsy. In this essay, I will first describe the core elements ofthe Henry/Alexander stage relationship; then I will explore the addition offeminine elements to the act, and the reflections that gender make upon the central racial impersonations. The changing images offemininity in the work ofMclntyre and Heath—from the grotesque blackface "gal" to the mechanized white sex object—create a link between the oldest blackface traditions and the commodification of race and sexualityin the twentieth century. In both blackface stereotypes and idealized white dancing choruses,white,male theatrical artists projected an illusion of knowledge, even intimacy, with the bodies of people— African Americans and white women—who held inferior social positions . Mclntyre and Heath used this process to assert and confirm their performative authority, which translated into decades ofticket sales. The Henry and Alexander characters were typical ofblackface minstrelsy , representing the urban dandy and fhe dim-witted stable hand, respectively. The original dynamic between Henry and Alexander— before they began sharing the stage with chorus girls—demonstrates several ofthe qualities described byEric Lott:AfricanAmerican masculinity is reduced to a blackface binary; plots revolve around bodily urges such as hunger and lust; much ofthe humor arises from punning malapropism ; and the blackface world they live in also contains grotesque blackface females,who represent a monstrous,devouringsexual power.4 There is also evidence of a strong homosocial bond between the two actors, which echoes the larger homosocial context Lott ascribes to blackface minstrelsy. I would argue that when the white chorus girls were Leslie Pasternack507 added to this relationship, additional attractions and repulsions would have drawn new audiences for Mclntyre and Heath, such as working women exerting choice in their leisure activities,who often took fashion and beauty cues from performers; and middle-class men, for whom the sexualized spectacles ofthe earlier concert saloon were now legitimized in mass-produced entertainment and enacted increasinglycomplex race, class, and gender relationships. 5 Some scholars contend that blackface minstrelsy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 505-525
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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