In its early stages in the 1820s and 1830s, the minstrel show was rather unpredictable, but during the 1840s, a set three-part structure evolved, consisting of jokes and songs in the first part, an olio of “stump speeches” and other variety acts in the middle, and a plantation skit (later replaced by a burlesque skit) in the final section [1]. The characters in the minstrel show were separated from each other by speech, dress, and geographic location. “End-men” played tambourine and bones (they were sometimes called Tambo and Brudder Bones) and were portrayed as being of lower class by costume and vernacular. These characters wore poorly fitted satin suits, oversized ties, and curly wigs, and they engaged in jokes and quips with the smartly attired white interlocutor, who commanded centre stage. Also called “the middleman,” the interlocutor served as a bogus mouthpiece for high culture: his dress and speech were upper class, he did not wear blackface, and the plot usually centred on the  interlocutor and end-men exchanging quips, verbal jabs, and comic one-liners.

In the decades following the U.S. Civil War, the genre morphed again. During this period, known as “late minstrelsy,” blackface became more “consistently proslavery and racist,” both reflecting and encouraging such attitudes in its audience and drifting further away from abolitionism. [2] Where early minstrelsy (before the 1850s) often depicted slavery negatively or elicited sympathy toward or identification with slaves, after the 1860s, minstrelsy began to look more critically at life in the northern states by focusing on themes related to immigration, urbanization, and modernization, which had created fundamental changes to institutions, and the country’s social, moral fabric. As the North became more industrial, the South became more provincial and seemingly “out of place” with American industrial capitalism.

When"black" minstrel troupes (i.e. African American in blackface) first began to appear in the 1860s, they stressed their authenticity as genuine “Negro slaves” and concentrated on Southern plantation material. CharlesHicks (1840-1902), commonly viewed as the father of "black" minstrelsy, was an African American who in addition to becoming a theatre manager was also a performer and owner of multiple blackface minstrel troupes composed ofAfrican American performers. In 1865, he managed a troupe called the Original Georgia Minstrels, billed as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World,” it was so popular that it reportedly outdrew all other minstrel troupes, black or white, in 1866. [3]

1. Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “Shuffle Along,” advertisement, November 17, 1923. Source: The Dawn of Tomorrow, p. 3.Eddie 

2. Eddie Leonard’s “Our Singing Minstrel,” advertisement at Shea’s Hippodrome Advertisement, January 1, 1927. Source: The Globe, p. 2.

Minstrelsy began to wane in popularity because it was generally restricted to a southern and primarily rural base, including Black people, [4] from the 1880s onward vaudeville, with its specialty acts such as a variety show, burlesque comedy, song and dance, and blackface entertainment nestled in between, superseded the minstrel show as the dominant form of mass entertainment, especially in the North. Vaudeville was unique because unlike the legitimate theatre, which referred to a performance wholly by the spoken word, and the minstrel theatre with its blackface repertoire, vaudeville acts came from all ethnic groups and genders, in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the “respectable” thespian to the circus “freak,” from opera singers to chorus performers. The most glaring difference between minstrelsy and vaudeville was the democratization of the theatrical stage. For the first time, women and African Americans could perform on stage in and out of blackface.

The significance of vaudeville rests on the fact that white managers allowed white performers to take on a range of racial disguises while discouraging black performers from trying to look or act white. Whereas whites (men and women alike) could “play” in blackness, Black performers could never become white. Vaudeville, then, with its segregated seating and the prominence of racial stereotyping in its productions, was one of the many institutions restricting Black freedoms following American Reconstruction [5]. The biggest extravaganza of the century occurred when AlfredGriffin Hatfield (1848 or 1850 – 1921) often billed as Al G. Field, or Al G.Fields brought Darkest America,the first show to feature a large number of the major Black entertainers of thetime on stage at one time, to Canada. In May 1896, for instance, The Globe announced the arrive of Darkest America: "Al. G. Field's big colored minstrel company, "Darkest America," will be next week's attraction at the Toronto Opera house. Mr. Field, with his usual good judgment has not only selected the first class talent, but has also introduced into his entertainment a great variety of material of a novel and original character." [6]

3. Billy Kersands poster for Callender's (Georgia) Minstrels, c. early 1870s. Source: Public Domain. 

4. Cabinet card image of the Georgia Minstrels, including founder Charles. B. Hicks at centre, photographed for their Australian/Asian tour, c. 1919. Source: Public Domain, see also TCS 1.440, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University.

5. “Sissle & Blake,” editorial on “Shuffle Along'” appearance at Royal Alexandra Theatre, August 25, 1923. Source: The Globe, p. 18.

Until the advent of cinemas in the 1920s, vaudeville performance was the dominant mass entertainment. Its popularity also coincided with an influx of immigration from Eastern Europe, as well as with corresponding debates about the place of racial and ethnic minorities in North American society. For example, throughout the 1930s, an Italian-Americanactress Tess Gardella, who first appeared wearing blackface as Queenie in the1927 production of Show Boat, was also able to perform under the name AuntJemima. [7] “Old Aunt Jemima” was also a minstrel song performed by the African-American stage performer Billy Kersands, who started performing with Callender’s GeorgiaMinstrels, an all-Black minstrel troupe, in the 1870s. Some of vaudeville’s most lauded "white" performers - Al JolsonEddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker - were all Jewish immigrants themselves or children of immigrants who donned the burnt cork mask of minstrelsy in order to assimilate into America’s entertainment culture.

The 1920s would usher in changes in the theatre. On May23, 1921 when Shuffle Alonga new musical featuring an entirely African American cast openedon Broadway, it was not the first show to feature an all-Black cast, but it wasthe first to extend such developments to include the creation of a book andmusical score. [8] In 1923, TheDawn of Tomorrow widely promoted Shuffle Along, which appeared at theRoyal Alexandra Theatre. Shuffle Along's creators, Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake also appeared in The Globe in promotion of this groundbreaking musical. In 2016, Shuffle Along was revived on Broadway.

[1] Robert Nowatzki, 2010. Representing African Americans in Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, p. 35.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] YuvalTaylor and Jake Austen, Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery toHip-Hop (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2012), 50.

[4] Toll, p. 273.

[5] Alison M. Kibler, 1999. Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, p. 115.

[6] "Announcing "Al G. Field's big colored minstrel company, "Darkest America" at the Opera House," The Globe, May 6, 1896, p. 12.

[7] Cheryl Thompson, “I’s in Town, Honey’: Reading Aunt Jemima Advertising in Canadian Print Media, 1919 to 1962.” Journal of Canadian Studies 49.1 (Winter, 2015): 223.

[8] David S. Thompson,  “Shuffling Roles: Alterations and Audiences in Shuffle Along.” TheatreSymposium 20 (2012): 97.

6. Eddie Leonard’s “Our Singing Minstrel,” advertisement for appearance at Shea’s Hippodrome, January 1, 1927. Source: The Globe, p. 2.

7. “Al Jolson in Sinbad,” advertisement for appearance at Grand Theatre, Hamilton, September 4, 1920. Source: Hamilton Spectator, p. 12.

8. “Music and Drama: Al. G. Fields’s ‘Darkest America,” editorial, May 6, 1892. Source: The Globe, p. 12.


Remixing ‘Shuffle Along,’ a musical that brought new sounds and moves to Broadway.

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