The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment that included comic sketches, variety acts, dancing, and music. It was performed by white people in blackface and, especially after the Civil War, black people in blackface. Minstrelsy parodied black people as ignorant, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, joyous, and musical.
Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. It was at the forefront of the rise of the American music industry during the 1830s and 1840s. For several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it gave white Americans a look at a culture that they knew very little about. The minstrel show had mass appeal among all strata of white American society. By 1856, New York City had ten full-time resident minstrel companies, and within another decade that number doubled.
First minstrel show in New York’s Bowery
How did the minstrel show begin? In the early 1840s, A traveling musical show called the Tyrolese Minstrel Family was well know for performing traditional Middle-European folk songs. Four desperate unemployed white actors got together and decided to stage a “Negro” style parody of this popular group’s concerts.
Whites performed in blackface
Billing their act “Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels,” their blackface revue debuted at New York’s Bowery Amphitheatre in February of 1843. A full evening of blackface variety entertainment was presented by Emmett, Frank Bower, Frank Pelham and Billy Whitlock. The four men arranged their chairs in a semi-circle on the stage, offering a fresh combination of songs, dances and comic banter, creating cartoonish Negro caricatures. Most historians consider this production to be the beginning of minstrelsy.
John Tryon, who ran the Bowery Amphitheatre, booked mostly minstrel shows after Dan Emmett’s Virginia Minstrels brought down the house. The theatre booked these shows from 1843 until 1848, when new management took over.
The Bowery Theatre — which was directly across the street from the Bowery Amphitheatre — under the management of Thomas Hamblin saw the increased bookings of minstrel show and other variety entertainment acts during the same period. Hamblin defied conventions of theatre as high culture by booking productions that appealed to his working class patrons.
New York’s Bowery
What kind of neighborhood was the Bowery? Walt Whitman called the Bowery, “The most heterogeneous mélange of any street in the city; stores of all kinds and people of all kinds are to be met with every forty rods…You may be the President or a Major-General, or be Governor, or be Mayor, and you will be jostled and crowded off the sidewalk all the same.”
The minstrel show structure and characters
The typical minstrel performance of the time was performed in three acts. In the first act the entertainers danced onto stage, exchanging wisecracks and singing songs. The pun-filled stump speech was featured in the second act, which included a variety of entertainments. The last act was a slapstick musical plantation skit or a send-up of a popular play. The slave and the dandy were the featured stock characters featured in minstrel songs and sketches. These characters were joined by supporting stereotypes such as the “mammy,” her counterpart the old “darky,” the provocative “Mulatto wench,” and the black soldier. Spirituals (then known as ‘jubilees’) entered the repertoire in the 1870s, marking the first truly black music to be used in minstrel shows.
The minstrel shows were extremely popular, but they were also quite controversial. Racial integrationists protested the insulting aspects of them, including falsely showing happy slaves while at the same time making fun of them. Segregationists, on the other hand, felt that such entertainment was “disrespectful” of social norms, portraying runaway slaves with sympathy and undermining the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery.
The first black dancer in a minstrel show
“Master Juba” (c. 1825 – c. 1852 or 1853) was an African-American dancer who performed in the 1840s. Among the first black performers in the United States to play onstage for white audiences, he was the only one of the era to perform with a white minstrel troupe. His real name was believed to be William Henry Lane, and he was also known as”Boz’s Juba” following Charles Dickens’ detailed description of him in American Notes.
The rough saloons and dance halls of Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood was where he began his career while a teenager. He moved on to minstrel shows in the mid-1840s. “Master Juba” frequently challenged the best white dancers — including the renowned John Diamond — and handily defeated all of them. At the height of his popularity in America, Juba’s act featured a section in which he imitated a series of famous dancers of the day, closing by performing in his own unique style.
His style was lightning-fast at times, expressive, and unlike anything seen before. His dancing blended European folk steps, such as the Irish jig, and African-based steps used by slaves on plantations slaves, such as the walkaround. Before Juba began performing, the dance of blackface performance was more faithful to black culture than its other elements. As blackfaced clowns and minstrels adopted elements of his style, however, Juba further enhanced this authenticity. By having such an impact upon blackface performance, Juba was highly influential on the development of such American dance styles as tap, jazz and step dancing.