It was another era, it was another time in America. In the summer of 1946, the men of Epiphany Parish on the West side of Detroit staged a minstrel show to raise money for the church.
Minstrel shows, or minstrelsy as it was known, were developed in the 1840’s. Throughout the 19th century, well into the 20th they were the most popular form of musical entertainment in America.
In these days of political correctness, the whole idea of minstrelsy seems preposterous. Caucasian men with blackened faces, singing, dancing and telling jokes in the dialect of Africans who had been brought to this country as slaves; what on earth were they thinking of?
It’s difficult for Americans under eighty years of age to comprehend. Especially so for people of color. But the truth is that minstrelsy was fun. It celebrated the music and dancing and, yes, the humor, that came from the cotton fields of the South.
My Dad and my brother, Terry, were recruited to be in the show. I was in high school and not eligible to perform. Still, I attended some rehearsals and learned the songs. The following year, when I started college, Terry and I put together a minstrel show act, singing songs like Alexander’s Rag Time Band and Miss Malindy’s Jubilee Ball.
Somewhere down in the storage closet, there’s a photo of the two Brennan boys in our white tuxedos, our faces blackened to the teeth, hamming it up at one of several shows we did at church socials and at the University of Detroit.
I got to thinking about those days when I read about the fuss created after the performance of ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway, attended by Vice-President Elect Mike Pence and his family.
Like the minstrel shows of old, Hamilton confronts the matter of race head on. Black actors play the roles of white historical figures. The history of the American Revolution is told in the rap music of the inner city.
And like the minstrel shows, Hamilton’s music knows no prejudice. Steven Foster’s tunes swelled hearts and titillated ears of every color. Hamilton’s score enraptures audiences without fear or favor.
In truth the theater drives the culture. Music and dancing, stories and songs, the vast and wonderful storehouse of make believe that emanates from Broadway and Hollywood molds our lives and our thoughts as surely as they reflect the reality around us.
Hamilton has been lauded as a vehicle to acquaint the younger generation with the history of our nation. Surely a smash hit Broadway musical can get the attention of young people who manage to get out of high school and indeed college with zero knowledge of our first Secretary of Treasury.
But if there is some trickle down educational benefit in Hamilton, there is also the insouciant confrontation of the status quo inherent in its casting.
The ‘cattle call’ for the casting of Hamilton specified that they were looking for NON WHITE rap singers. That is a pretty unusual message which would raise a lot of eyebrows at the Equal Employment Opportunity Office if it had said NON BLACK.
The company was recruited for its diversity, and American diversity is the theme of the show. The gratuitous curtain call lecture to the next Vice President of the United States was unnecessary, juvenile and tacky.