The street-smart black friend of a white protagonist. The menacing black man. The sassy black woman.
These stereotypical depictions of black people have filled television, movies and theater productions for years.
Where do they come from?
The Black Rep’s production of Ntozake Shange’s “Spell #7” at Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre makes the case that the one-dimensional, demeaning character types of 19th- and 20th-century minstrel shows still haunt the entertainment industry.
In many cases the specifics of the stereotypes have changed, but the pattern continues — white decision-makers in the arts offering a narrow range of character types to black performers.
“We are constantly working, still, under that shadow of these negative images, these negative perceptions of black people,” said Ron Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep. “These stereotypical roles that we have been forced to play still dominate the industry — film, television, the theater.”
One character in “Spell #7” complains that a director keeps telling her to play a role “blacker.”
“If that director asks me to play it any blacker/ i’m gonna have to do it in a mammy dress,” she says.
Himes said white decision-makers in film, TV and theater often insist on a distorted, white version of what black behavior looks like.
“You still have white directors and white writers who want to tell black people how to play black,” he said, “who want to tell you, 'You’re not black enough; can you do it blacker?' 'What do you mean? I’m as black as I’m gonna get. I’ve been this black for this many years, how much blacker do you want me to be?'”
Shange was born in New Jersey and spent several formative years in St. Louis as a child. Like her breakthrough piece “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which earned a Tony Award nomination for best play in 1977, “Spell #7” is what she called a “choreo-poem.”A nine-member cast performs a series of poetic monologues that are thematically related and tied together with music and movement.
There is a dreamlike quality throughout “Spell #7,” which takes place in a St. Louis bar frequented by black actors, dancers and writers. The characters’ monologues address the difficulty of black artists working in an industry dominated by white people.
A looming history
The play traces back the phenomenon of black artists being compelled to portray a white version of blackness to a once-popular racist artform.
Minstrel shows, which were the most popular form of live entertainment in 1850s America and continued into the early 20th century, typically involved a series of stock characters. These included Jim Crow, the dancing buffoon; Mammy, the mother typically tending over a slew of children; and Buck, the menacing black male who seeks the attentions of white women.
Though minstrel shows rose to popularity as performed by white people, black Americans mounted their own versions. To be accepted by white audiences, they enacted the same set of stock characters.
The history of minstrelsy literally looms over “Spell #7.” A large image of a blackface mask hangs above the stage; another is painted onto it. The actors also don their own masks.
The first character to speak is Lou, whose costume suggests the minstrel character known as the Interlocutor, who typically wore a top hat and ran the show.
During a rehearsal break, Brian McKinley, who plays Lou, said that the themes in the show speak to his own experiences.
“As a black artist, wondering if I fit the bill ... There’ve been multiple times when I’ve debated on, going into an audition season, where I don’t know if I want to cut my hair or leave it as an afro. Or what should I do? Am I cutting myself off from too many roles?”
His work on “Spell #7” has been a different experience.
“This show really helps me to embrace my identity as a black artist. I can wear my hair however I want. If they want me, they want me,” he said.
Himes, who also teaches the history of black theater at Washington University, founded the Black Rep in 1976, the year “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” went to Broadway after a successful run at New York’s Public Theatre.
“I think that the black theater is the one place where black people are able to control our images,” he said. “And I think work that [Shange] gives us gives us the vehicle to be able to be our true selves.”
The play ends on a note of celebration. Beal, the choreographer, said she hopes the uplifting feeling is contagious.
“There’s joy throughout the production. And so you also go away with that feeling as well.”
If you go
What: "Spell #7"
Where: A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, 6465 Forsyth Blvd., St. Louis
How much: $20-$50
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Ntozake Shange's hometown. She was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and spent several years in St. Louis as a child.
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