The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show
Chicago Theatre Company
Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theatre
We tend to think of 19th-century minstrel shows as white actors wearing blackface and acting out reconstruction-era stereotypes of “darky life on the Old Plantation,” in the words of one old playbill. But by the 1870s, as Allen Woll notes in his book Black Musical Theatre, troupes of self-proclaimed “real and original” African American entertainers were competing with white companies. The 1890 census listed 1,490 black professional actors, and most of them were employed by minstrel shows.
This paradox–black actors imitating white impersonations of blacks–makes an intriguing premise for Carlyle Brown’s The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, about an all-black minstrel troupe and their white manager a century ago. Like August Wilson in Seven Guitars and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Brown seeks to dramatize African American life by interweaving a tragic plot with extended passages of story telling; but Brown’s writing falls short of the rich poetic and historical textures Wilson brings to his scripts. Still, the real-life horror of racist violence Brown depicts gives his play moral urgency. And the minstrel-show elements–especially the visual metaphor of blacks in clownish blackface, representing the extreme psychological disorientation suffered by men forced to play the fool in order to survive–are effectively handled by director Douglas Alan-Mann and his well-chosen cast.
It’s a bitter winter night in 1895, and the six members of the Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show are sitting in the private Pullman car in which they tour America–a necessity given the segregation policies of the commercial railroads. Getting ready for the coming night’s show in Hannibal, Missouri, the men don their burnt-cork blackface, reminisce about their careers, eulogize dead friends, and fret over the future of small operations like theirs, facing extinction because of extravaganzas like Buffalo Bill’s wild-west show. They also break into music making (on harmonica, banjo, and spoons), comedy (including an ancient “Bones and Tambo” bit), and dance (choreographer Reginald McLaughlin was guided by veteran hoofer Ernest “Brownie” Brown in teaching the actors their delightful vintage dance steps). Instructing their newest partner, a teenager named Archie, in the etiquette of minstrelsy, they warn him never to look the audience in the eye: whites may flock to colored minstrel shows out of curiosity, but their hostility remains. The truth of this lesson is eventually illustrated by the show’s Mr. Bones, Percy, who gets on the wrong side of a vicious white mob and pays for his mistake with his life.
Though Percy’s grim fate is an all- too-accurate reflection of reality, Brown’s clumsy, melodramatic handling of it robs the play of the impact he seeks; Little Tommy Parker winds up feeling more like a history lesson than stirring drama. Still, its focus on a significant but little-known aspect of black history is interesting, and the high quality of the acting makes the production well worth seeing. Particularly impressive is Paul Mabon, an actor of great emotional depth as well as vocal presence, as Percy, the classical actor troubled by the artistic and racial denigration of minstrelsy. An equally full-bodied if more subdued performance is delivered by Ron O.J. Parson as Solomon, a quiet man who dreams of giving up show biz and becoming a redcap so he won’t have to “perform” for whites’ pleasure. Director Alan-Mann’s son deMann is charming and poignant as the eager-beaver idealist Archie; and tall, lanky Adrian L. Byrd is a fascinating Tambo, slipping in and out of his eerily exaggerated minstrel caricature with careless, almost surreal ease, epitomizing the role-playing required of blacks in a white-run society.
Like Little Tommy Parker, the musical Dreamgirls depicts a benchmark in African American cultural history–and the cruel compromises required of black artists to function in a white-oriented entertainment market. If donning blackface was a way for black men to take a place, however demeaning, on the 19th-century stage, wearing straight-haired wigs and high-fashion gowns was an equally artificial means for black women singers in the 1960s to “cross over.” The Dreams, the vocal trio whose evolution is charted in this 1981 pop opera, force their bodies into tight, glitzy gowns and their voices into tight, glossy harmonies. The racial prejudice they face is less deadly than that suffered by Percy the minstrel, but it’s no less stifling–and their resentment is no less insistent.
Conceived by director Michael Bennett and written by composer Henry Krieger and librettist Tom Eyen (who drew on material improvised during workshops with the original cast), Dreamgirls is a savvy mix of show-biz soap opera and sociological tract. Obviously if unofficially inspired by the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes, it charts the upward climb of three teenagers from a Chicago housing project to soul-music stardom under the guidance of car-salesman-turned-producer Curtis Taylor, who dreams of making black music a dominant force in the record business. His strategy is to make R & B less “Rough & Black”–slicker, smoother, brighter, whiter. His methods also include DJ payola (to push his own records and kill his rivals’) and sexual manipulation: he seduces temperamental lead singer Effie Melody White, then ditches her for the prettier, more pliable backup vocalist Deena Jones (don’t call her Miss Ross), whom he reshapes into the Dreams’ front woman and finally a star on her own.
Not as powerful as the Broadway version but considerably better than the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse revival of a few seasons back, Marriott’s Lincolnshire’s Dreamgirls is a pretty good production of a brilliant work of theater. Mark S. Hoebee’s staging is fast paced and crystal clear, illuminating the ingenuity with which the score propels the archetypal plot while evoking changing musical styles (blues, jazz, funk, soul, and disco) and reinforcing the lyrics’ recurrent dream imagery: dreams of love, dreams of stardom, dreams of self-respect, dreams of equality. Nancy Missimi’s richly colorful costumes and Kenny Ingram’s crisp, playful choreography capture the glamour and silliness of the 60s. Standouts in the generally fine ensemble include Angela Robinson, whose performance as delicate Deena makes the show’s gentlest moments its strongest ones; Marshall Titus, in strong voice and good comic form as the James Brown-like James Thunder Early; and diminutive dynamo LaTonya Holmes as Lorell, the third member of the Dreams and Early’s romantic foil.
If the show fails to convey its full dramatic power, it’s because nominal star Felicia P. Fields isn’t up to the torrential vocal demands of Effie, the overweight and always-late diva whose rise and fall and rise give the work its heroic heart. Aside from throat problems on opening night (which kept her out of several shows last weekend), she sings her act-one showpiece, “(And I’m Telling You) I’m Not Going,” in a lowered key, considerably dampening its emotional impact. If we don’t believe that Effie is really the best singer in the Dreams, her demotion to backup doesn’t carry much meaning. Still, in the first act Fields is a strong comic actress; one hopes her lackluster interpretation of Effie’s second-act redemption will gain force as her health returns.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Greg Davis.