Unhappy History

A look back at the tawdry minstrel-show era.

With Carlyle Brown's The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, Jeffrey Nickelson's Shadow Theatre Company continues its mission of education and enlightenment. The play deals with a musical form that many of us would rather forget. According to a pre-show explanation by director Hugo Jon Sayles, minstrel shows did not originate with white performers, as many historians assert, but began when plantation owners brought out their slaves to entertain guests. The idea was seized on by white America, however, and throughout the nineteenth century, white actors painted their faces and adopted idiotic voices to present ugly, degrading caricatures of black people. But black men, too, acted in minstrel shows, more and more as the century wore on -- although, ironically, they also corked up their faces to appear darker.

Brown's achievement as a playwright is that he fully reveals the racism and national shame behind the minstrel show while exploring the talent, energy, humor, intelligence and creativity of these black performers, for whom the minstrel show remained, despite the humiliation it imposed, one of the few viable jobs then available.

As the play opens, three men wait in a bullet-pocked railroad parlor car in Hannibal, Missouri, for their performance to begin. The year is 1895. Outside, it's freezing cold, and there's a sense of danger in the air. The men pick at their instruments, reminisce, show each other dance steps. They are soon joined by two more performers, Solomon and his eager protegé, Archie. The interactions among the members of the group are fascinating. Vincent C. Robinson plays chatty, affable Henry, the best-natured trouper and the most likely to keep his wits about him in a crisis, with warmth and skill. Jimmy Walker is an attention-riveting Tambo, by turns funny and imposing. Kw. Brock Johnson plays Doc, a graceful, centered, enigmatic presence with a fine speaking voice. Though Doc has less to say than the others, you find yourself glancing at him often, wondering what he's thinking. I had a little problem with Timothy C. Johnson's agitated entrance as Solomon: Some of his words were garbled, and I wasn't exactly sure what he was so angry about. But Johnson seemed to relax more into the character as the evening wore on. Toward the end of the play, when all the men painted on blackface and white clown mouths, Johnson's mournfully sarcastic expression, amplified by the makeup, was revelatory. Quatis Tarkington, too, is very good as naive young Archie. These actors succeed at the difficult task of fully taking on the mannerisms and speech of the nineteenth century while still maintaining a very contemporary sense of irony.

Jeffrey Nickelson and Timothy C. Johnson in Little 
Tommy Parker.
Jeffrey Nickelson and Timothy C. Johnson in Little Tommy Parker.

Most of the show's strongest moments occur in the first act, as the performers chat, goof off and reminisce. There's a terrific dance duel when Tambo demonstrates his ability to cakewalk while balancing a full glass on his hat. Walker's movements are priceless as they go from cautious footwork to jubilantly smooth high kicks. And then Archie takes up the challenge, his kicks less controlled than Tambo's but just as high, his face revealing that he's almost as astonished by his own ability as are his fellow performers.

But there are problems with the script. It tends to be talky and static, and by the second act, when the sixth troupe member, Percy (Jeffrey Nickelson), stumbles in and describes a gun-flourishing run-in with a crowd of angry, drunken whites, the action starts to feel melodramatic. Not because the plot development is implausible, given the daily dangers these men face, but because of the way Brown shapes the story. Within minutes, Tambo and Percy are shouting at each other about professional jealousy, and then we learn of a murder that Percy once committed. All of this tends to vitiate, rather than underline, the very real menace waiting outside in the night. In addition, while Nickelson is a strong actor, his approach is out of sync with the more naturalistic acting of the others, and this makes his performance seem overblown, as if he'd walked into the production from a more stylized tragedy.

 
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