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Theater 32.2 (2002) 26-43

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Return of the Repressed

Shawn-Marie Garrett


I had to confront / again & again / those moments that had left me with little more than fury n homicidal desires. in spell #7 i included a prologue of a minstrel show / which made me cry the first times i danced in it / for the same reasons i had included it. the minstrel may be "banned" as racist / but the minstrel is more powerful in his deformities than our alleged rejection of him / for every night we wd be grandly applauded . . . we believed we cd escape his powers / how naïve cd we be

—Ntozake Shange, "forward / unrecovered losses / black theater traditions"

On an evening in late October 1998, at the Soho Repertory Theater in Lower Manhattan, Black Samba, a workshop production that should never have been born, is dying, but not fast enough for the squirming audience. The playwright, director, and actors have failed to impress with a series of sloppy "outrageous" spectacles: a skinny naked guy giving himself shock treatments; an old man in a wheelchair, slobbering; an old woman writhing on the floor; guy-on-guy action. Finally, they pull out the big guns: the cork and the dialect. (No African Americans were involved in this production.) An actor kneels on a carpet, and begins rocking to and fro while smearing on dark makeup and droning about "blackness" and "the jungle." A white friend leans over to me (also white) and says, "It had to turn up sooner or later." Quite apart from the politics of the act, by the late 1990s a white actor blacking up in a downtown Manhattan experimental theater had become something of a cliché.

A month and a half earlier, in Broad Channel, Queens, two white firefighters, Robert Steiner and Jonathan Walters, smeared black lipstick on their faces, donned Afro wigs, and rode through their mostly white neighborhood on a Labor Day parade float called "Black to the Future: Broad Channel 2098." They tossed slices of watermelon to the crowd, hoisted fried chicken cartons, and tried to break dance. Walters dangled from the back of a pickup truck and, in reference to the June 7, 1998, lynching of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas, shouted: "This is what happened to our brother in Texas! We shall not allow that here!" According to the New York Times, the two later testified that "they simply wanted to mock their virtually all-white neighborhood and its attitudes about race by appearing on a float that depicted what they called an 'integrated' Broad Channel a century from now." Walter offered a Clintonesque vestra culpa: "If it was perceived to be offensive, or was represented by the media in an offensive manner, then I apologize for that." 1 [End Page 27]

Performances similar to these—minstrel shows—happened regularly across much of the nineteenth century, but few saw the need to apologize for them, and even fewer found moral value in them (until recently). The politics became more difficult to interpret when blacks themselves took up the minstrel mask directly after the Civil War, and the same has been true during what can only be called the return of minstrelsy in American culture at the turn of the twentieth century.

In Seattle in August 1997, the visual artist Kara Walker created a flyer aimed at gallerygoers. Its typeface and layer-cake design evoked a slave auction bill or a nineteenth-century theatrical advertisement. It read, in part:

The Henry Art Gallery
is given the opportunity to present to you
Our Negro Brethren
{works of certain interest}
created entirely by a young
of unusual ability.

Walker, the "young Negress," designed the ad to promote her huge cutout panoramas, in silhouette, of warped bodice-ripper fantasies dug up from the muck of the Old South, shaded by paper-doll magnolia trees and Spanish moss. Walker's silhouettes are as dense, weird, delicate, grand, and theatrical as Bosch's paintings. In one work, a naked slave hangs from a tree by her monkey's tail, defecating into the eager open mouth of...


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