Minstrel Show: Definition & History

Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In this lesson, we'll discuss the definition of minstrel shows. We will look at the history of this type of entertainment, focusing on its development and highlighting a few key performers.

What is a Minstrel Show?

During the 19th and early 20th century, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment. In a minstrel show, white performers put black makeup on their faces (often called blackface) to imitate African Americans through stereotypes and caricatures. Many minstrel shows included jokes, ballads, comedic songs, soft-shoe numbers, and instruments like the banjo and the violin. Today, we recognize that these shows were clearly racist, but unfortunately, at the time, they were not often viewed in that light. Minstrel shows instead became very famous and were enjoyed by many people around the country.

These three characters were often in minstrel shows.
Minstrel Characters

The History of the Minstrel Show

Minstrel shows started in the 1830's and became famous in the U.S. from 1840-1880. There were many different minstrel troupes that performed around the country. The Christy Minstrels were one of the most successful minstrel troupes; they performed on Broadway for almost 10 years.

Before the Civil War, black men were prohibited from performing in minstrel shows. But when it ended, African Americans formed their own minstrel troupes. Minstrel shows were the only type of theatrical performance that they could do to support themselves artistically. There were also a few larger companies that employed both black and white performers.

Many minstrel shows included three characters (as pictured above): 'Jim Crow' was the stereotypical carefree slave, 'Mr. Tambo' was a happy musician, and 'Zip Coon' was a free black man trying to 'put on airs' to rise above his position. Clearly, these characters would be seen as offensive today, but during this time they were 'par for the course.'

In the 20th century, some women were performing in minstrel shows too. Some famous singers even got their start performing in these shows. A couple of examples include Ma Rainey (known as the first great black professional blues vocalist) and Bessie Smith (called 'the Empress of Blues' during her lifetime and sang with legends like Louis Armstrong).

Minstrel shows faded out in the early 20th century. But even though the lights went out on these racist shows, the stereotypes and caricatures portrayed in them had a deeper impact on performers and performances, as racial stereotypes still exist in entertainment today.

Bert Williams in blackface
Bert Williams

One of the Most Famous Minstrel Performers

Bert Williams was one of the most popular African-American performers in the 1900s. Williams played a pivotal role for black performers: he wore blackface yet he wrote his own material and did not try to get laughs by making fun of other African Americans or black culture. Instead, he created humorous skits about universal situations that anyone could relate to, and he became hugely successful as a result.

Wearing black face allowed Williams to wear a mask that visually distinguished him from both his white performing colleagues and from his audiences. He became so successful that many white performers complained that his material was better than theirs. Many white performers refused to have their name on the same bill with him, and he often faced discrimination from servers at restaurants and from hotel employees in the very establishments in which he performed.

In 1910, Florenz Ziegfeld hired Williams to be one of the stars of 'The Ziegfeld Follies,' which performed on Broadway. Though this brought him even more fame, Williams still faced racial discrimination on a daily basis. He did not eat or travel with the acting company, he could not share the stage with white women, and he had to find his own travel accommodations while on tour.

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