Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff, describe their act early on in Minstrel Show: "Tableaus of Negro Life," they say with a flourish. But this performance, they confess, is a tableau of Negro death, the story of the 1919 lynching of William Brown in Omaha, Nebraska.
The true wonder of Max Barber's play is that it is entertaining, engrossing, and deeply emotional at the same time that it instructs and illuminates a bleak era of American history.
The minstrels, Yas-Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) and Sho-Nuff (Elgin B. Gordon) tell the tale through many of the tools available to black actors on the minstrel circuit. (And, yes, there were black minstrels as well as white ones, playing different scenes to different audiences.) They use burnt cork, a trunk of raggedy clothes, and songs of hard work, violence and comedy to circle around and come closer and closer to their eyewitness account of William Brown's lynching.
Brown, a rheumatic black man accused of assaulting a white woman, became the target of an Omaha mob that may have been as large as 10,000 white citizens. Frustrated at their inability to get to Brown, who was imprisoned in the Douglas County Courthouse, the mob set the building afire, hung their own mayor, and shot at the police guarding the prisoner. Ostensibly called up to give witness to the terrible event, Yas-Yas and Sho-Nuff speak directly to the audience, implicating contemporary viewers in the terror.
Minstrel Show is first and foremost an exhibition of masterful writing. Barber manages, with only two characters, to bring to life the slow gathering of a mob that, as it gains strength, loses humanity. By placing the two men inside the courthouse as the terrible day progresses, he is able to slowly build the tension of those trapped by the mob and afraid for their lives. At the same time, Barber skillfully diffuses that tension with occasional quasi-comic moments, songs and tableaux performed by the minstrels.
Barros, as the talkative and dignified Yas-Yas, and Gordon, as the more fearful and insecure Sho-Nuff, both do a fine job with the complex task set before them. Although they both have some difficulties fully mastering the turn-of-the-century Mississippi dialect, each is able to fully enter the characters and portray the impossible positions of black men in a society gone mad with hatred.
Yas-Yas carries the first half of the play, describing their minstrel act and their experiences being assaulted and arrested in Omaha the day before the lynching. Barros uses his lean form to good effect, standing straight, bending over, dancing and moving from pleasure to fear to pride to disgust. It is Sho-Nuff, though, who is the witness to the mob assault, and, in the second half Gordon uses his expressive face and lively eyes to convey palpable disbelief and fear at the events unfolding before him. The use of black face makes for a remarkably transforming mask, dulling all the planes of the face and thus dramatically emphasizes the eyes and mouth of the actors, adding power while diminishing the subtlety.
Effective staging by director Rob Urbinati, with occasional use of sound effects to heighten dramatic tension, add to the play's success. Urbinati has directed the play in several different venues, most recently off-Broadway, and TheatreWorks reaps the benefits of his experience. Minstrel Show is a strong, interesting, harrowing and entertaining production. Although the play is grounded in a particular historical moment, it speaks to a world that recently witnessed James Byrd, Jr.'s dragging death, the murder of Matthew Shepard, and the mob rule in Central Park after the Puerto Rican Day parade. The strength of all historical plays lies in their applicability to the present, and, by this measure, The Minstrel Show is an unqualified success.