Donald Byrd has a positive genius for pushing buttons. He’s been doing it throughout his long career as a performer and choreographer, and he certainly didn’t stop when he came to Seattle in 2002 to run Spectrum Dance Theater. The group had been working in a jazz-inflected mainstream style, but Byrd started shifting it in a more politically dynamic and physically extreme direction right away, with works like A Cruel New World, which focused on the national response to 9/11. With a background in theater, Byrd is quite confident about bringing contemporary eyes to historical works, offering radical views of heritage dances like Vaslav Nijinsky’s Petrushka and Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty. In some of these explorations, his focus is on older theatrical conventions, but he mostly presents the work as an example of its surrounding culture. His current project sits right in the middle of highly contentious ground: The Minstrel Show Revisited takes an unflinching view of a difficult part of our performance history, making us squirm and smile at the same time.
The minstrel show is considered the first truly American performance event, with a legacy that persists today in vaudeville, revues, and variety shows. Like its heirs, minstrelsy provides an intimate and sometimes uncomfortable link between performers and audience. The original minstrel shows of the 19th century reflected the complex relationship between black and white Americans, before and long after the Civil War. For Byrd, minstrelsy isn’t a thing of the past, but part of the living present.
Byrd has deliberately filled Minstrel Show Revisited with elements that will make us wince—everyone appears in blackface, with impossibly big afro wigs, white gloves, and spats. The program opens with a hyper-enunciated delivery of “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” and goes on to hit almost every racial stereotype you can think of. Performers recite lists of ethnic slurs, tell racist jokes, pull tricks, and mock one another. Since this is a work by Donald Byrd, they also dance with incredible intensity and skill, so that we are both fascinated and repelled by the racist and sexist subtexts of our dance heritage.
This version of Minstrel Show Revisited is itself a revision of the original 1991 production. At that time, Byrd was responding to the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager killed by a white mob in Brooklyn, which led to massive protests, a media circus, and the election of New York’s first African-American mayor, David Dinkins. Byrd knew he was dealing with sensitive material, but was still surprised at the amount of push-back from audiences.
On tour, audiences walked out of the award-winning production. In California, he told The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Someone said, ‘We don’t have these problems in La Jolla.’ Someone else said, ‘Donald Byrd, you should be ashamed of yourself.’ And just before I answered back, I thought, ‘This is what I wanted.’ It was a dialogue; it just wasn’t the one I expected to have.”
Two decades later, there’s a new dialogue about American racism, one reflected in the divide between Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful exaggerations in Django Unchained and Steve McQueen’s all-but-documentary 12 Years a Slave. Outside Hollywood, there’s talk of “thugs” and long-form birth certificates when it comes to public figures like Richard Sherman and Barack Obama. Our police department has been accused of institutional racism, and our school district has backed away from a curriculum that deals directly with white privilege. We are far from a post-racial society, as Byrd would be the first to tell you.
Indeed, there’s more than enough material in Minstrel Show Revisited to connect today’s audience with America’s racist past. In a workshop version I watched last November, the program ended with spoken transcripts from George Zimmerman’s 911 calls before he shot Trayvon Martin and his interrogation at the police station afterward. A deadpan delivery style made the grim material even more dire. Yet Byrd insists there’s both entertainment and horror in his Minstrel Show. “I like liveliness,” he says about his approach to dance and theater. This new look at a discredited old theatrical style should give its audience plenty to talk about.
SPECTRUM DANCE THEATER Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 325-4161, spectrumdance.org. $20–$40. 8 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 20–Sat., Feb. 22.