The entertainment of a minstrel show really began hours before the curtain went up, as the troupe paraded from the train station to their performance venue, which could be anything from a lavish opera house to the stage in a local tavern. When the show finally started hours later, the building—and maybe even the whole town—was already buzzing with anticipation.
The curtain rose on a simple set: a semicircle of chairs with the orchestra behind them. As the performers entered with a rousing opening number, they each made their way to their designated chair: the dignified-looking Interlocutor (the only man who face was not painted black) to the center chair, the clowns Mr. Tambo (virtuoso on the tambourine) and Mr. Bones (master of the castanet-like bones) to the two end chairs, and the middlemen filling in the rest. As the opening number ended, the Interlocutor proclaimed: “Gentlemen, be seated!” and the company obliged.
The minstrel show started with a series of songs interspersed with jokes from the end men. Tambo and Bones had a vast repertoire of puns, stage falls, and insult humor (“That was no lady, that was your wife!”) that delighted the audience, especially when they were at the expense of the Interlocutor, who could never seem to avoid walking right into a punchline. After the jokes and songs came the middle part of the show, where all the performers got to show up their specialties. A company might include a particularly good tap dancer; a multi-instrumentalist; or a gifted monologue artist who performed “stump speeches” full of malapropisms.
The third and final part of the minstrel show, called the Afterpiece, usually consisted of a one-act play, sometimes improvised on the spot to reflect local events and politics, but often a parody of Shakespeare or an Italian opera (both of which would have been well known by any audience member). Othello was a particular favorite, though the original text would be replaced by rhyming couplets and coarser language.
Minstrel shows were the most popular form of entertainment in America in the late 1800s and into the beginning of the 20th century. Their decline, accelerated by the arrival of silent movies, was lamented by many (white) Americans, who wrote essays and books about their beloved art form and even organized amateur minstrel shows as late as the 1960s. What these (white) Americans conveniently forgot was that the black paint on minstrels’ faces was not merely a theatrical convention like the white paint on a circus clown. When minstrel performers (both black AND white) applied their burnt cork masks each night, they were taking part in a tradition rooted in the degradation and mockery of the entire black race. To forget this history is to ignore—or worse, accept—this degradation, and to perpetuate it, and that is why a show like “The Scottsboro Boys” is so important.