If the minstrel show was usually whites in blackface or, later in the century, blacks in blackface, what then is a stage shared by both whites and African Americans in black-and-white face? “Safe face?” “Can’t-find-enough-African-American-actors-face?” I asked myself these questions as the lights came up on Deuce Theatre’s The Duncan Storm, which closed Sunday night at the South of Broadway Studios in North Charleston.
I teach African-American theater. The damage done to the perception of African Americans, onstage and off, due to the projected images developed in this theater form in the late 18th century, is one I soapbox each term. The idea of going to see a “blackface minstrel show” was intriguing simply because I am in touch with my angry negress side and don’t mind toting her out when necessary, even fully understanding that once she’s out, she’s awfully hard to put back in. And now I was off to see a show that laid claim to the title “minstrel.”
I walked into the theater and sat in the second row, pen poised and ready to destroy this company for their “daring,” their audacity. The music from the era playing lightly in the background made sense. I looked at the all black-and-white set and thought, “makes sense — even if a little heavy handed.” I looked around the audience, recognizing I was one of perhaps four African Americans in a crowd of maybe 20 people; I figured if I was offended and my inner angry negress came out, we could take ’em.
The creators, Andrea Studley and Michael Catangay, paid real homage to the minstrel form, starting the show with an overture and ending it with the traditional walk-around, but with a twist. Studley, who also directed, was masterful in her many roles but most particularly as Huckster Bones. Her “black man’s voice” was pulled off well enough that I was checking her neck to see if she was of the darker nation. She isn’t. As Mr. Duncan’s (played by Randolph Middleton) attorney, she was absolutely stunning. Even in her ridiculous costume/makeup/hair — all spot-on (designed by Gloria Studley) — she dared the audience/jurors not to challenge the madness going on in the “courtroom,” and, if we could have, we would have rewritten history. Andrea Studley’s staging in the South of Broadway Theatre was clever and worked well, weaving actors through the audience and behind three flats covered in white scrim that, when backlit, allowed for changes in location and character. The final tableau was worth the $15 ticket.
Admittedly, the best part of the piece was when we moved past the minstrel shenanigans and into the meat of the play. Daniel Duncan’s history is a true Charleston story. Oh, it’s not one that people share over holiday drinks or that you’d hear on one of the many historical tours here in the Holy City, but it is true.
Daniel Duncan, a 24-year-old Negro who was one week away from being married, was wrongly accused of killing a Jewish shopkeeper on King Street and publicly hung after nine failed appeals. The transcript that served as Middleton’s final monologue should have brought tears, but Middleton got caught in a rhythm that allowed the audience to wander.
I’m not sure why they chose the minstrel format, and even at only 90 minutes, shaving the specialty acts would serve the piece well.