On the Long Tradition of the Imitative Performance of Blackness

Ayanna Thompson Considers the History of Minstrelsy, Racial Tropes, and the White Gaze

By Ayanna Thompson, Lithub

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, blackness was performed in two modes—exhibition (black people on display) and imitation (white men in racial prosthetics). Because in the exhibition mode all the power resided in the viewer (not the one exhibited), and because in the imitation mode all the power resided in the white, blacked-up performer, performances of blackness were a white performance property for actors and audiences.

In the 19th century, blackness and whiteness were performed by black actors for the first time in the United States and the United Kingdom, and their performances challenged the long-standing assumptions that (1) blackness was a white performance property and (2) only white actors could be virtuoso performers. These early 19th-century black performers were denigrated by white critics, white audiences, and their fellow white actors for “aping” white performance modes. The criticisms these black actors faced told them to stay in their lane, a lane which indicated they were only fit for imitation and “aping.”

In the 21st century, it is possible to see the legacy of these unequal horizons of expectations for black performers in three distinct performance modes: minstrelsy/imitation, exhibition/trauma, and anxiety/authenticity…

Tyler Perry began writing plays in the 1990s that were focused on the struggles of working-class black Americans. They often had a melodramatic structure with explicitly redemptive Christian endings. Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Wesley Morris described Perry’s plays as “loud, long, hysterical shows in which a bunch of characters, not infrequently on a set resembling a sitcom diorama, love and leave one another, imparting morals the way a shot gets put. They aren’t quite farces, dramas or melodramas. They’re not exactly parables, musicals or church, either. They’re usually all of those things. Somebody’s mad, somebody’s cheating, somebody’s dying, somebody’s scheming. Here’s some dirt. Here’s some slapstick. Here’s a gospel song. Here’s the truth. Oh, Lord…”

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