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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Controversial Minstrel Show
Setting Off Sparks in Red Bank

Also see Tim's review of Happy Days

Minstrel Show
Spencer Scott Barros and Kelcey Watson
Fact - In Omaha, Nebraska in September 1919, Agnes Loebeck, a 19-year-old white woman, reported that she was stuck up and then sexually molested by a black man while returning home with her boyfriend.  The following day, Will Brown, a 41-year-old packinghouse worker who was crippled with severe arthritis and lived with a white woman, was arrested as a suspect.  Loebeck tentatively identified this unlikely perpetrator as her attacker.  Brown was taken to the Douglas County Courthouse followed by a mob which had surrounded Loebeck's house.  Over the course of many hours, the white mob surrounding the courthouse grew to number an estimated 5,000 people.  The race riot precipitated by this mob was particularly ugly and resulted in the deaths of two white men among the mob, the attempted lynching of Omaha's mayor (who was cut down by police and barely escaped with his life), the setting afire of the courthouse, and the delivery of Brown to a celebratory mob which beat him mercilessly, shot him repeatedly (reportedly the actual cause of his death), strung his body up on a pole, and then set his body afire and tied it to a car which dragged it through the streets.

Fiction – On the evening that the mob was growing outside the courthouse, two black minstrel show actors were assaulted in an alley while trying to escape a dozen ruffians who had invaded their show and commenced to beat everyone in sight with baseball bats and wooden planks.  Police rousted the ruffians, but then proceeded to arrest the bloodied minstrels on charges of disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct.  Brought to the courthouse and placed in a cell with Will Brown, the minstrels became witness to the horrifying mob murder.  A few days later, these black men in cork blackface were rousted mid-performance and dragged back to the courthouse to testify before a committee investigating the riot.

As Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of Willie Brown begins, these minstrels, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas, are entering the hearing room at Douglas County Courthouse where the ad hoc committee is gathered to hear their testimony.  We, the audience, sit in place of the committee.   Understandably distrustful and cautious, Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas try to distract us by performing bits and songs from their minstrel show act.  However, over the next 85 minutes, we will see them gain strength and self confidence as they remove the cork from their faces and increasingly less reluctantly relate from their perspective the harrowing Omaha riot of 1919.

It is certainly of value to recall this tragedy of our history (and this was only one of close to two dozen disgraceful race riots which occurred during this dreadful year in our racial history) and it is well and harrowingly told in this account by Max Sparber.  Still, these events are as powerfully and even more fully recounted in the available photographs and historic accounts of the era.  However, it is in the transformation of Sho-Nuff and Yas-Yas from self-demeaning traveling actors scuffling to make a living to proud men determined to be witnesses and teachers, educating their people as to the horrible events that they have seen that provides the inspiration and theatrical catharsis that gives Minstrel Show its distinction.

Although the actors' names appear without any notation of their roles in the program, the characters are identified by their minstrel show routine names in Max Sparber's script. These names should be restored as playwright Sparber's subtle distinctions between them do not prevent the minstrels from at first appearing to be interchangeable stock figures.  However, director Rob Urbinati and his fine cast, Spencer Scott Barros (Yas-Yas) and Kelcey Watson (Sho-Nuff), successfully convey their two distinct personalities.

Barros' Yas-Yas is clearly more confrontational and dissatisfied with his lot.  Very early on, he removes the cork from his face, and his body language displays a combativeness which exceeds that of his words.  Watson's Sho-Nuff has a touch more down home slurring dialect in his line readings, and, for a longer time, his body language remains obsequious.  When their narrative of the riot emerges, Yas-Yas does most of the witnessing at first.  However, when their story reaches the moment when Yas-Yas is knocked unconscious, the telling of the narrative falls to Sho-Nuff.  In witnessing to the committee, Watson's Sho-Nuff, who has finally removed the cork from his face, assumes a dignity and sense of purpose which stands as an early exemplar of the determination that marked the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.

Director Ron Urbinati directed the first production of Minstrel Show in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse, the actual scene of the events depicted in the play.  Quinn K. Stone's minimal set successfully sets the scene of the fire-distressed courthouse.  The evocative, ratty minstrel show costumes are by Patricia E. Doherty.  The sound design, complete with dramatic reverberation effects, is by Jessica Paz.

At the conclusion, Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff decide that their act needs "refashioning."

we witnesses to history ...

we want that history told ...

and we want it told right

Well, author Max Sparber, director Rob Urbinati and actors Spencer Scott Burros and Kelcey Watson are telling it right at Long Branch's New Jersey Rep. 

Sho nuff

Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown continues performances (Eves: Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m. / Sun. 7 PM; Mats: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through October 28, 2007 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org/

Minstrel Show, or the Lynching of William Brown by Max Sparber; directed by Rob Urbinati

Cast
Yas-Yas………….Spencer Scott Barros
Sho-Nuff…………………..Kelcey Watson

 

Sidebar: It's not every day that a play sets off a controversy in a New Jersey shore community, but credit the adventuresome New Jersey Repertory with becoming mired in one, with its New Jersey premiere of Max Sparber's Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown.  It should be noted that, when this play was first produced in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha, Nebraska where the tragic historic events depicted actually occurred, it also induced some controversy (with a local State Senator calling for a boycott by the African-American community).  However, that production received strong critical support and enjoyed an extended sold-out run there.  It has since had several additional productions around the country, including a limited engagement in Manhattan's East Village and Queens Plays in the Park.  The most widely publicized part of the Long Branch controversy was reserved by the poster design for this production.  It depicted the disturbing, almost surrealistically distorted image of two performers in black face.  Notably, this artwork has been used by other theatres around the country without incident.   It clearly did not suggest a light hearted minstrel show.  "Hurtful" and "insulting" were among the comments of members of Long Branch's black community.  After meeting with community leaders, NJ Rep producer Gabe Barabas withdrew the artwork from all of the theatre's materials.  It is notable that this artwork has been used by other theatres around the country without incident.  Additionally, the community leaders were invited to a dress rehearsal of the play.  According to the account of a local newspaper, five members accepted the invitation, and three are quoted as objecting to the production.  Three of them were deeply offended.  Two specifically questioned what purpose could be served by presenting the play.  "Why now, and why in Long Branch at this time?".  It is worth noting that this individual stated that she could recall the Ku Klux Klan marching in Long Branch and local segregation, including that of movie theatres.

Sadly, the Klan has continued to be active in New Jersey within the last decade.  I respectfully submit to those who object to this production that this is reason enough to establish the need for plays such as Minstrel Show.  - BR   


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- Bob Rendell



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