Spoleto 2011 » Theater

The Duncan Storm stirs up the cold case of Daniel Duncan

A minstrel for truth

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The past has a way of being resurrected, which proves William Faulkner's point: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Deuce Theatre's highly creative and ambitious minstrel show, The Duncan Storm, is based on several recent histories analyzing the 1911 trial and hanging of Daniel Duncan for the murder of Max Lubelsky. A month after Duncan's execution, Charleston was hit by a ferocious hurricane, known in local folklore as the "Duncan Storm," an omen of the trial's injustice. Deuce's The Duncan Storm is an original play written by husband and wife Michael Catangay and Andrea Studley, with historical consultation by Daniel Crooks, co-author of Charleston's Trial: Jim Crow Justice.

In 1911, a Jewish Charleston merchant, Lubelsky, was attacked in his clothing store on King Street and subsequently died from his injuries. A week later his wife Rose was similarly was attacked in their store, but she was not seriously injured. Duncan, a 24-year-old black baker about to be married, was found nearby and accused of both attacks. After a quick trial with little deliberation, Duncan was found guilty and hanged.

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With iconic characters such as Mrs. Calhoonery, Huckster Bones, and Shmoul Finkelstein, Deuce bravely challenges modern sensibilities with their concept of a minstrel show and its inherent exploitation of racism. The Duncan Storm uses music, dance, and humor to take another look at the trial that relied on prejudice more than evidence, arguing that the first attack had no witnesses, and that Duncan was falsely accused of the second attack simply by being a black man at the wrong place at the wrong time, which proves another of Faulkner's observations: "Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other."

Deuce throws a twist into their version of black-face minstrelsy. The multi-race cast of men and women are made up and costumed in black and white, creating a surreal, comic effect as they dance and sing and poke fun at various stereotypes, setting the scene for the upcoming trial. The humor is a guilty pleasure. The audience warms up quickly with the cast's direct interaction and their own participation in the production.

The original music score and choreography, based on traditional American styles, incorporates African rhythms, Jewish melodies, rhyming spoken word, Shakespearean poetry, ragtime, and soft-shoe dance. A washboard is thrown in for good measure. "The Charleston Jew Rag" is a rousing opener, known as the cakewalk in minstrelsy. Its reprise with slow-motion choreography accentuates the surrealism of the public celebration of Duncan's conviction. "Little Jewrusalem" makes the most of "anti-semantic" humor, but the dancing needs polishing. The smoothly blended voices of "Jungletown" and the mournful humming of "Swingin' Free" are reminders of the ominous undertones of racism.

In 1911, minstrel shows were waning in popularity and died out in the 1920s, but using minstrelsy and its stock racial stereotypes, Deuce connects the integral role that racism played in Duncan's trial and illustrates how pervasive the racial prejudice was in American culture at the time. The show takes that correlation a step further, suggesting that the issue of racism is at the forefront again of our collective consciousness with the election of Pres. Obama, and asks, "How far have we come?"

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