My Sunday Times feature [£] on how the Kander & Ebb musical draws on the tortured history of minstrelsy:
As a young man, Kander had directed blackface shows at a summer camp in Wisconsin. The whole point of using minstrelsy to tell the Scottsboro story, he says, was that it gave him and Ebb a means of examining the hypocrisies and double standards of the era. “The minstrel show is such a dead thing that using it as a form became a solution. What struck me was all these old Stephen Foster-type songs were written by white men to be sung by blackface white men to a white audience. They were all about missing life on the plantation. What a total fraud that was.”
Not everyone was convinced the show hit its target. One scathing review came from The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, biographer of Louis Armstrong. While he praised “one of the best-staged productions ever to come to Broadway”, he had nothing but scorn for “a nightly act of collective self-congratulation in which the right-thinking members of the audience preen themselves complacently at the thought of their own enlightenment”.
Perhaps the truth is that, even today, we are still struggling to come to terms with the legacy of minstrelsy. Spike Lee provoked no end of controversy in 2000 with Bamboozled, a raw, unflinching satire on the TV industry featuring a blackface variety show that becomes an unlikely ratings hit. One of Lee’s spoof TV ads even raised the awkward question of whether gangsta rap videos recycle the same unsavoury imagery that kept minstrel shows in business for so many decades.