On this day in 1843, the first minstrel show in the United States, The Virginia Minstrels, opens at the Bowery Amphitheatre in New York City. The entertainment, consisting of white and black actors in blackface lampooning blacks with stereotypical accents and plot lines, is considered a sad, racist chapter in American entertainment.
Minstrelsy began in the early 1830s as brief burlesques and entr’actes and blossomed into a complete form of entertainment by the 1840s. The shows were variety acts consisting of comic skits, dancing, and music performed by actors who darkened their faces with burnt cork. The shows often portrayed black people as naive, dim-witted buffoons who sang, danced, and drank the day away on slave plantations. In spite of their racist content, minstrel shows quickly became the leading source of information–however flawed–about blacks. In fact, for several decades, minstrelsy was the lens through which whites viewed black America. Minstrel shows were also the most popular musical stage shows of the time. They are considered the first form of distinctly American musical theatre and the core of the rise of the American music industry.
Such shows usually followed a three-act structure. The first act consisted of a troupe of actors dancing onto stage, singing songs, and cracking jokes. The second act was a variety show of sorts, with stump speeches and more puns. Finally, the last act would typically include a musical skit or a spinoff of a popular play. The shows usually featured a cast of stereotypical stump characters like the cheerful, dim-witted slave; the maternal mammy; the crotchety darky; the provocative mulatto wench; and the black soldier.
In February 1843, the Virginia Minstrels opened to a paying audience at the Bowery in New York City. The lineup included Dan Emmett, Billy Whitlock, Dick Pelham, and Frank Brower. In addition to introducing iconic costumes and elaborate shows, the group is credited with the original performances of songs “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “Old Dan Tucker,” now folkloric mainstays.
By the turn of the century, minstrelsy began to lose popularity to new forms of entertainment like variety shows, musical comedies, and vaudeville. Still, their role in portraying blacks as stupid, naive, happy-go-lucky, musical buffoons damaged perceptions of black America, a dark legacy that loomed for decades.
Photo Credit: Minstrel Poster Collection (Library of Congress)
Photo Caption: A poster entitled “J.W. Johnson’s Old Reliable Virginia Minstrels world’s best colored show: the show that is different.”