I taught middle school students theatre and one of our discussions last year was about how our images in TV/FILM and STAGE either play apart in this new “Modern Day Minstrel Show.” Our topic was on various images that are shown through music videos, movies and stage plays. All with the underlined theme: Do we still participate in minstrel shows today and who controls these images? 50 Cent, “Soul Plane,” and Tyler Perry were the representation of how these images infiltrate Hip-hop music videos, blaxploitation movies and Chitlin’ Circuit plays. The students were divided over the idea of the modern day Minstrel Show. Most students believed that the images shown were created by us and for that, we have the control and that idea is positive and uplifting.
During the Minstrel Shows of the 1800s many white actors caricatured blacks in a way that was outlandish, degrating and misleading. The students who agreed that we owned our own images, were pleased at the outcome of what we as a nation had accomplished, entertainment wise. On the other hand, most of the other students disagreed. They believed that the images set us back 200 years. They did believe we controlled our images and with that had an obligation to disconstuct the stereotypical views from other cultures. They wanted the 50 Cents and the Tyler Perrys to show us in positive, realistic roles. It’s okay to have fun, and to laugh, but it’s not okay to make a mockery by playing this exaggerated baffoon, homo-thug, gun-totting drag queen stock character. The students were left at a crossroads, one student proposed that economics play a huge role in what we see and someone else suggested submission or a slave mentality. To behave in this cartoonish way and not deal with the “real” issues of fatherless children, drugs, gangs, education, infidelity etc…with realism and pride to your craft, this dehumanizes us as black people and forever brands us with the roles that we will always receive from our white counterparts.
All this to say, I saw a program on BET called The Chop Up and the topic was on The New Minstrel Show. I was amazed that the same contempt for Tyler Perry and others was so deep seeded. I was amazed that Malik Yoba “called out” Larry Hamlin saying that he needs to “take the shades off” and realize that the “urban theatre market” is booming and that they are force to reckon with! I’m like, what the hell? Has theatre turned into the new Hip-Hop? We gangsta now? Shakespeare my nicca!!! What? What? Where ya play at?
Come on Malik…it’s not that serious. You chose to do theatre your way and Larry chose to do theatre his way. Malik commented that “people who call the Urban Theatre Market the Chitlin Circuit are the same people that believe that Hip-Hop is just a fad. I don’t know what he meant by that, but I call them Chitlin’ Circuit plays, because that’s what they are, I’m not offended by the name and neither should the thousands of people that are creating that genre of theatre either. (You gotta watch the program, his analogy was so off the mark!) Malik says that he’s the voice of the people, but I challenge him to think about the other people that he’s excluding.
What bothers me is the lack of education. Everyone can’t put on a play. Everyone can’t write a series of dialogue with characterization, plot and a denouement. That’s a very difficult thing to do. For the self-taught theatre professionals, they believe that what they are doing is helping our people, but what they don’t realize is that it hinders them. Our people are not informed by the August Wilson’s that were just as revolutionary as Tyler Perry. In Fences, Mr. Wilson’s take on infidelity is emotional, humorous and real, as his main character looses respect from his wife after she finds out that he has another child with another woman who is now dead. Her decision to keep the woman’s child as if it were her own, is realistic and heartbreaking. The hurt and pain of devotion for years to this man could have driven any woman away, but she was strong and regal without being a “Mamie type stock character.” There are ways to express her anger without the use of guns or setting fire to his clothes. I just wish people would think about what images they are portraying and find a medium. Find a way to service, uplift and reap dividends without degrading themselves. This goes for all types of theatre.