Saturday, March 21, 2009


Blackface was, as you've probably figured out by now, a long-standing tradition in the high school musicals of the 20s and 30s, so in some respects, I suppose it was inevitable that someone -- in this case, Frederick G. Johnson -- would write a juvenile version of a minstrel show. Hence, GEORGIA JUBILEE MINSTREL (1936).

The show is built along the lines of a classic minstrel show, with the Interlocutor and six End Men. Johnson begins with a very grand overture that I'm sure is heavily orchestrated for brass, then moves into an opening chorus that starts before curtain rise.

Way down in Georgia
Moon is shining bright
Way down in Georgia
Darkies are singing tonight

It's underscored with a lot of tension-building tremelos and performed with close-cut harmonies that no doubt challenged its young performers. When the curtain rises, the ensemble is all seen in standard minstrel formation, and the music jump-cuts to a quick 2/4:

All aboard!
Hear the whistle blowin'
All aboard!
Hear the rooster croonin'
Everyone knows
Everyone knows
When the minstrels come to town

It's loud and quick and "snappy". Then the Interlocutor shouts "Gentlemen, be seated!" -- and we're off.

As one might expect from a minstrel show, the dialogue is replete with bad jokes, although the ones in this production are miles away from the classically bawdy ones. Instead:

INTERLOCUTOR. Earl, I understand there was quite an argument up at your house the other night.

EARL. Yep. Ma told Pa kept her awake because he was always talking in his sleep.

INTERLOCUTOR. And does your father really talk in his sleep?

EARL. Sure. He was to talk sometime, doesnt he?

... interspersed with numbers such as "I Want to Sing in Opera", performed to a riff on the "William Tell" overture:

SOLO. Old William Tell in the long ago
Made quite a hit with his crossbow
He put an apple on his kid's bean
And shot it off so nice and clean

CHORUS. When people saw what he had done
They all went wild and loudly cheered
Their crabby king was a grouchy thing
He got so mad he chewed his beard.

In the classic minstrel shows, the end men made occasional fun of the Interlocutor, and GEORGIA JUBILEE holds to that, albeit in a much gentler way. We also get the proscribed depreciating interplay between the End Men themselves. Women are portrayed in the jokes as flippant and flighty, while men are generally dense -- one End Man complains his girlfriend has been out seeing other men for the past week, but at least in the process he saved nineteen dollars and eighty-five cents. But by and large, the hunour throughout is simple and remarkably innocent, even for a group that would have acted blackface characters far more egregious in past productions. The script has little transcribed dialect, leaving it open, I suppose, for none at all. In the Suggestions at the beginning of the script, it's emphasized that the "subject matter has been selected that it will prove suitable for juvenile talent as for adult performers". In other words, it's pretty watered down, which I have to admit surprised me. After all, actual touring minstrel shows wouldnt have been unknown to these young performers, and those were pretty blatant about their racism.

For their part, the songs are standard high school operetta fare: a waltz or two, a couple of ballads, a few big numbers for the entire company, all with a not-quite-Southern sensibility, as though Johnson wasnt really familiar with the genre and faked it. He was primarily a composer (He wrote the earlier-mentioned BELLE OF BAGHDAD, which was also remarkable for its lack of ethnic stereotypes), so it's not surprising that he looks to old time standards and college songs for most of his lyrics.

Taken in total, GEORGIA JUBILEE isnt as offensive as it very well might have been; instead, it's a slight entertainment with a few decent vocal challenges. There's a great deal to suggest that Johnson looked at the basic outline and went his own way, creating something that was "age-appropriate" while still being his own take on a somewhat foreign theatrical convention. Discard the name and the makeup and change a few lyrics as well as other minor things, and the musicale could be performed today as a variety show, and I doubt anyone would blink an eye.


By contrast, THE ENTERTAINER (1935) is a compendium of songs, skits, a complete operetta (The publisher says it runs two hours; I'm betting an hour and a bit), and "over 200 jokes, toasts, and gags", all designed for the needs of the amateur performer. Fully half of the book, however, is devoted to minstrel shows: a fairly comprehensive history, how to properly rehearse them, how to properly apply makeup, and a not-so-tiny nod in the direction of the defenders of the art form:

In every town and hamlet in these United States are those who will cherish and defend their unalienable right annually to apply burnt cork to their faces and hold forth in the old town hall for the benefit of the local fire company or some other deserving cause.

That's a little heavy-handed, but given the era, I'm not surprised. What follows are five scenarios, with notations for where songs are to be inserted, and all built around the usual cascade of bad jokes, save that here they're far, far worse, even by 1935 standards. These are followed by four one-act "playlets", all pretty much standard vaudeville fare from the 1920s, except that now they've been re-written for blackface-style entertainment: the unfaithful wife with too many sweethearts, the emergency visit to the doctor with the HelloNurse. There's a "plantation sketch" called LOUSIANA, that draws on every ante-bellum stereotype of the happy mammies and cotton-pickin' negroes. It's probably worth mentioning that all roles are to be played by men. In it, there's a shotgun wedding (in which the groom wears a plug hat and the bride has bright red "long drawers" under her mosquito-net veiling and white-paper gown). The reception is a big dance number, interrupted by a white man who's hellbent on shooting everyone onstage and thereby reducing everyone to shaking in terror -- but it's all in fun, you see.


Still, reading it made me wonder how the same material would play were it done by black performers before a black audience. In their hands, the humour would probably be as self-mocking as any seen on an all-black sitcom written by the Wayne brothers... which makes it difficult to put these in any modern-day context. "Funny" is certainly in the eye of the beholder — which will be even more apparent in a forthcoming post in which gays are lampooned in a high school operetta... and trust me, it's far merciless than GEORGIA JUBILEE could ever be in its treatment of blacks.

I have to admit: I'm of a mixed mind when it comes to these things. They're part of our theatre history, and we should see them as the cultural oddities they were. Offensive? You bet. Insulting? Sure thing. But when you look at how other minorities are portrayed in the high school musical genre, GEORGIA JUBILEE is positively benign in its treatment, while THE ENTERTAINER is simply a mirror of the harsh cultural realities of its time -- and should be seen as such. Face it: every epoch of American history has seen its maxed-out stereotypes, and about the best we can hope is that we learn from the experience and move on.

And there's a certain sadness when you read something like THE ENTERTAINER. There's a level of desperation in its recycling material from the decade prior. Even the illustrations and page borders are clearly based on a mid-1920s sense of the people who would be performing this stuff: everyone's rich and elegantly dressed in bias-cut gowns and satin-lapeled tuxedos. Vaudeville and traveling minstrel shows were well on their way out by 1935, and THE ENTERTAINER is a final, death-bed gasp at keeping the artforms alive.

No comments: