Five. The Minstrel Wench and the Mummers Wench: A Performance Genealogy

From: Haunted City

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

117 five |  The Minstrel Wench and the Mummers Wench A Performance Genealogy In December 1963, under pressure from civil rights activists, the city of Philadelphia banned blackface makeup from the Mummers Parade. To protest the ban, a group of white mummers staged a sit-­ in that briefly halted the 1964 procession up Broad Street. As mummers historian Charles E. Welch Jr. recalls it, Members of the H. Philip Hammond Comic Club sat down in the middle of the street, some shouting, “Negroes sat down in City Hall, we’ll sit down here.” A new chant started: “One, two, three, four, we hate Cecil Moore” (local leader of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]). The police quickly moved in and forced the mummers to rise. The entire incident lasted about twenty minutes, after which the paraders again started up the Street.1 The appropriation of the sit-­ in, a tactic of the civil rights movement, to defend the practice of racial impersonation is among the more ironic examples of the interracial history of the Mummers Parade. To stop in the middle of a parade route is to seize control over the audience ’s experience, disrupting the sequential procession of performances moving along the street. By intervening in the temporal flow of the 1964 Mummers Parade, the members of the Hammond Club attempted to intervene in the parade’s history to preserve the mummers’ longstanding practice of blackface masking. This chapter measures the impact of Hammond’s intervention by tracing a performance genealogy of the mummers wench, one of the most enduringly popular figures in the parade. This genealogy begins with early nineteenth-­ century black and blackface performance and extends through the present, highlighting new, progressive possibilities for disrupting the Mummers Parade’s unfinished history. 118 haunted citY Frank Dougherty and Ron Goldwyn, who spent decades reporting on the Mummers Parade for the Philadelphia Daily News, describe the mummers wench as “the most traditional, outrageous, and politically incorrect of all mummers. Basically, it’s a guy in a dress. The hairier the legs, the longer the braids, the colder the beer, the better.”2 The persistence of racial and gender impersonation among the wenches of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade suggests a genealogical connection between the mummers wench and the “wench act” of the early 1840s: a burlesque form of gender impersonation performed by white men in blackface, often in the context of the antebellum minstrel show. Although many midcentury minstrel troupes incorporated blackface gender impersonation into their routines, the wench act first became popular in 1842, before the conventional format of the antebellum minstrel show—­ with two endmen, an interlocutor, and a semicircle of musicians—­ had come into its own. Thus the wench act stands at a threshold between the short blackface scenes and sketches of early nineteenth-­ century popular theater and the emergence of the minstrel show as a full-­ fledged theatrical genre. The genealogy of the mummers wench encompasses not only the wench act but also two other, equally complex performance traditions: the cakewalk , an antebellum slave dance absorbed into blackface minstrelsy, African American theater, and the “strut” of the mummers wench; and Philadelphia ’s African American brass bands, which have played music for white men on parade since the early nineteenth century. These three genealogical strands came together in the performances of the early twentieth-­ century mummers wench and then frayed when confronted with the 1960s civil rights campaign to rid the Mummers Parade of blackface makeup—­ a campaign that brought important changes, though hardly an ending, to wench performances of racial and gendered impersonation. Until 1964 mummers wenches usually marched in blackface, recalling the frequent concurrence of blackface makeup and male-­ to-­ female transvestism in rowdy Christmas celebrations in nineteenth-­ century Philadelphia . As Susan G. Davis has shown, disorderly bands of young, working-­ class white men roamed the streets of the city on Christmas Eve from the 1830s through the 1880s, intimidating “respectable Philadelphians” and mocking women, blacks, and ethnic minorities.3 After 1854 Philadelphia’s new central police force cracked down on unruly Christmas celebrations, and holiday revelers responded by forming organized clubs and competing for prizes in neighborhood parades. In 1901 these neighborhood competitions converged on Broad Street for a New Year’s Day procession, with 119 the minstrel wench and the mummers wench prizes funded by the city. According to Goldwyn, wenches participated in the Mummers Parade for much of the twentieth century thanks to a tense but mutually beneficial arrangement...