Skip to main content

Lackface: Blackface Masking in Contemporary US Theatre

  • 172 Accesses

Abstract

This chapter examines contemporary US theatre works which incorporate the centuries-old racist tropes of the minstrel show and the blackface mask. Through the close examination of a collection of scripted plays and performance art pieces, including Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors and Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment along with the musicals The Scottsboro Boys and Shuffle Along, I analyse the appropriation of this truly American form of racist caricature and how it is used in the current moment—not to denounce racism against blacks but rather to lambast any essentialist ideology of race formation. The playwrights discussed (both black and non-black) engage in an interesting challenge; while minstrelsy cannot be extracted from the story of US popular entertainment and, in response, playwrights and performers shock and confuse by dragging this complex history back onto the stage.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-43957-6_16
  • Chapter length: 16 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   109.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-030-43957-6
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   149.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   219.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)

Notes

  1. 1.

    A filmed version of the play’s original production, directed by Lee, can be viewed at ontheboards.com.

  2. 2.

    A number of other ‘–faces’ are present in contemporary theatre, as a way of challenging dominant ideological perspectives. These are racial, as in red-, yellow-, and whiteface, or are related to other identity categorisations, such as pinkface for gay stereotyping. All use the suffix –face as a way of aligning themselves with the historical precedent of blackface.

  3. 3.

    Lisa Merrill and Theresa Saxon’s article specifically analyzes the adaptation of the Boucicault play. See Lisa Merrill and Theresa Saxon, “Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon,” Theatre Journal 69, 2 (June 2017).

  4. 4.

    This was noted in the foundational minstrelsy history, Blacking Up. See Robert Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974).

  5. 5.

    See the interviews in The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance with actors, producers, stage managers, and other artistic staff. Kathy A. Perkins, Sandra L. Richards, Renée Alexander Craft, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, eds., The Routledge Companion to African American Theatre and Performance (London: Routledge Press, 2019). This was also made clear to me in an unpublished essay written by my student Tiffany Gordon in 2020, titled ‘Ain’t It Funny: Marginalized and Mute’.

  6. 6.

    This is a very Bakhtinian moment. See M.M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1968).

  7. 7.

    It is indicative that Suzan-Lori Parks’s 100 Plays for the First Hundred Days, her response to the beginning of the Trump presidency, is primarily a document of disbelief and anger. See Suzan-Lori Parks, 100 Plays for the First Hundred Days (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2018).

References

  • Bakhtin, M.M. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Blige, Mary J. 2003. Ohh. In Love & Life. Geffen Records.

    Google Scholar 

  • Elam, Harry, Jr. 2013. Black Theatre in the Age of Obama. In The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, ed. Harvey Young, 255–278. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jacobs-Jenkins, Branden. 2012. Neighbors. In Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun, ed. Rebecca Ann Rugg and Harvey Young. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • ———. 2015. An Octoroon. New York: Dramatists Play Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lee, Spike. 2009. Passing Strange: The Movie.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lee, Young Jean. 2012. The Shipment. In The Methuen Drama Book of Post-Black Plays, ed. Harry Elam Jr. and Douglas Jones Jr. London: Methuen Drama.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz. 2002. I Don’t Give a Fuck. In Kings of Crunk. BME Recordings.

    Google Scholar 

  • Merrill, Lisa, and Theresa Saxon. June 2017. Replaying and Rediscovering The Octoroon. Theatre Journal 69 (2): 127–152.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Modest Mouse. 2004. Dark Center of the Universe. In The Moon & Antarctica. Epic Records.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rodewald, Stew, and Heidi Rodewald. 2008. Come Down Now and Work the Wound. In Passing Strange. New York: Dramatics Play Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Saal, Ilka. 2019. Performing Slavery at the Turn of the Millennium: Stereotypes, Affect, and Theatricality in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Neighbors and Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment. In Slavery and the Post-Black Imagination, ed. Bertram D. Ashe and Ilka Saal, 140–159. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schneider, Rosa. Fall 2018. Anyway, the Whole Point of This Was to Make You Feel Something. Journal of American Drama and Theatre 31 (1): n.p.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sellar, Tom. 2014, May 21. Pay No Attention to the Man in the Bunny Suit. The Village Voice: 8.

    Google Scholar 

  • Semisonic. 1996. F.N.T. In Great Divide. MCA Records.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stew. 2008. The Black One. In Passing Strange. Ghostlight Records.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, Harvey. May 2013. Black Performance Studies in the New Millennium. Theatre Journal 65 (2): 289–294.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kevin Byrne .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG

About this chapter

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this chapter

Byrne, K. (2021). Lackface: Blackface Masking in Contemporary US Theatre. In: Morosetti, T., Okagbue, O. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Theatre and Race. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-43957-6_16

Download citation