Donald Byrd’s The Minstrel Show manages to contain and comment on the many contradictions and ironies of this theatrical form, popular throughout the 19th century. Minstrelsy started, for instance, with a white man in blackface “imitating” a black man; when more blacks performed in minstrel shows, after the Civil War, they also wore blackface and shock wigs. The stereotypes of African Americans were reductive and demeaning, yet minstrel shows represented one of the first opportunities for talented blacks. They were the starting point for vaudeville, musical theater, ragtime. Though it’s tempting to think of this show as a polemic–Byrd, an African American, definitely attacks stereotypes–the piece is actually more complicated, using humor, audience participation (people are invited to contribute ethnic jokes to the performance, either onstage or in writing), parodies of black dance, and genuinely beautiful dance to capture this ambiguous American phenomenon. And though it’s called The Minstrel Show, Byrd doesn’t limit himself to the era of minstrelsy: he includes later phenomena like the theatricalized cakewalk and the salacious gillie shows–even Gone With the Wind (a parody of Scarlett O’Hara is one of the funniest things here). Nor does he limit himself to stereotypes of blacks. Indeed, the plentiful and often very funny racist, sexist, and ethnic jokes supplied by the audience indicate to what extent stereotypes are alive and with us. Next Thursday through Saturday, April 13-15, at 8 at the Shubert Theatre, 22 W. Monroe; $10-$30. Call 271-7928 for tickets and info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Tom Brazil.