A lot has changed since Donald Byrd performed “The Minstrel Show Revisited” in 2014. Even more since he first opened it in 1991. And yet the dialogue he hopes to inspire is still sorely needed. Even if it gets uncomfortable.
“The experience may upset them. A ticket to this show is a ticket to feeling uncomfortable,” Byrd said. “I’m even uncomfortable, and I’m in it. I know it and there’s times I feel uncomfortable. But I believe the only way we can work through this issue and other issues like racism is that we have to allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge that we feel uncomfortable. Avoiding it does not solve the problem.”
The Bessie Award winning production has always aimed to ignite that dialogue by evoking the art of a minstrel show. Popularized in the 19th century, minstrel shows were built on invoking and reinforcing racial stereotypes; typically featuring songs and jokes by white people in blackface. In “The Minstrel Show Revisited” the blackface and the jokes are still there. But that dialogue is coming from a different place: People of color.
By flipping the script of the traditional minstrel show stereotypes, Byrd is able to interrogate the conventional narrative around racial identities. It’s a journey everyone in the theater goes on together — including the ensemble of razor-sharp dancers.
“The white dancers need to deal with whatever guilt they’ve inherited. And black people need an opportunity to work through some of the anger they have, some of the persistence of the stereotypes,” Byrd said.
“In the past two years there’s been a tremendous amount of those kinds of deaths. Part of the preparation is that we talk about that; understanding that it’s important to do the show and able to deliver to an audience—that the idea of doing something like this is difficult for an audience...with the dancers, they have to go through that. Just like how in order to be a shrink, you have to be shrunk. In order to be a performer, you have to go through all that.”
He wasn’t always as empathetic to viewers’ reactions. When he first put on the show in 1989 as a reaction to the death of Yusef Hawkins — a black teenager killed by a mob of white youths in New York that year — Byrd didn’t claim any responsibility for audiences’ feelings as they were walking out of the theater. But as he’s grown over the years, so has the production.
“I was younger; I very intent on making a point and it didn’t matter to me so much how people responded to it. If they were upset so be it,” said Byrd, who’s been working as a choreographer for decades. “[Now,] the outcome of I want from an audience is completely different than when ‘The Minstrel Show’ was originally made. In the version now, it creates an opportunity for people to move beyond the kind of historical, knee-jerk responses that they have around issues of race.”
It’s a complex discussion already, let alone translating those raw and fraught conversations into dance. But Byrd isn’t worried about audiences losing the thread.
What audiences will see at this weekend’s performance of “The Minstrel Show Revisited” all that behind the scenes dialogue will be translated into a dance performance that draws from sources across centuries. Perhaps most prominently audiences can expect vaudeville style dancing, a la the Scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz,” but they’ll also see country, ballet, and other historical dance types, all mixed into a blender and poured on stage. The theatrical dancing will seem very familiar to audiences, meaning that while they may not trace all the “vocabulary of dance” audiences can understand the feelings.
But it’s not just a ticket to a guilt trip. It’s a tough subject, no doubt, but as the culmination of the Spectrum Dance Theater’s 2015/2016 season #RACEish, Byrd says the show is a logical end point for a series, and hopefully the start of a bigger dialogue.
“Racism persists. The culmination of the season is that we return to something that’s at the beginning to put the punctuation on it,” said Byrd, who’s served as artistic director of Spectrum since late 2002. “In some ways I want to say leave your guilt at the door; it’s not useful, it doesn’t solve the problem. It immobilizes you. Makes it impossible to do something, because you feel obligated to do it. I want audiences to be empowered to do something.”
“The Minstrel Show Revisited” plays June 16-18 at the Cornish Playhouse at 7:30 p.m., and June 19 at 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.spectrumdance.org.