The audience gasps and the performers seem perilously close to a knockdown encounter session when Nathan Stinson, a young black, sings “All Coons Look Alike to Me”, in the second act of The Wake. The musical is both a celebration and a condemnation of that half-forgotten lively art, the minstrel show. This week The Wake is in Baltimore, continuing a three-year tour that has stirred passions and applause on three continents.
Minstrel shows were a uniquely American development of the musical stage and at the same time a vicious form of racism that subjected blacks to ridicule. Yet for nearly a century the genre furnished the major showcase for Negro talent. “People don’t realize how big minstrel shows were,” says Leni Sloan, the 31-year-old creator and prime mover of The Wake. “In 1878,” he notes, “there were 200 minstrel houses on Broadway alone.”
Sloan sets his work in the Ziegfeld Follies dressing room of the last of the great black minstrels, Bert Williams, on the night after he died in 1922. The ghosts of six famed minstrel figures—three blacks and three whites who performed in blackface—gather to mourn. Clad in somber funeral dress, the six sing and caper through a medley of Williams’ most famous numbers, including Right Church, Wrong Pew and his show-stopping Nobody. Then Sloan (as 1880s minstrel star Billy Kersands) silences the house by noting that “even though Bert Williams made as much money as the President, he had to ride in freight elevators and take his meals in his room.”
The show alternates between jubilation, as each minstrel performs the acts he made famous, and increasingly bitter commentary on how blacks were treated in the minstrel form. After the 19th-century white impresario-performer George Christy (Paul von Rotz) brags about his fancy marble-and-mother-of-pearl theater, the blacks accuse him of stealing his “Jim Crow” broom-dancing routine from a crippled janitor. In the second act the minstrels don gaudy costumes from Williams’ trunk, and at curtain they dance a cakewalk and strut out of the theater to When the Saints Go Marching In.
The son of a Pittsburgh construction foreman and a caterer, Lenwood Ottis Sloan has been dancing since he was 4. At Temple University he amassed 126 credits in dance and theater but did not take enough other required courses to graduate. He later drifted to Berkeley in 1970, where he taught dance around the Bay Area, formed his own troupe, weathered two marriages and divorces, and became dance coordinator for the city of San Francisco. Asked to participate in a Bicentennial program, he proposed a minstrel show, and was commissioned to research and write it.
Pursuing his project in Washington and New York, Sloan became determined “to tell the whole story.” The original result, called L.O. Sloan’s Three Black and Three White Refined Jubilee Minstrels, premiered in San Francisco in 1976. Gradually, during tours of Europe and Australia and 10 revisions, the present retitled show evolved. Sloan says it is stronger yet less preachy. His home base is San Francisco, but he is almost constantly on tour. The troupe will move to New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Brooklyn and then winter in Australia. But the show plays such small theaters that the cast still has to work parties on the side and take nonshowbiz moonlight jobs to pay its bills. Sloan won’t be satisfied until The Wake is finally self-supporting and playing on the, ahem, Great White Way. Potential producers tell him they’d be more interested if he would soft-pedal the politics. “If we do that,” snaps Sloan, “we merely revive the minstrel show, and I’m not interested in that.”