The provocative, racially charged The Duncan Storm: A Minstrel Show in Black and White is not easy to sit through — Deuce Theatre's original work pokes and prods audiences and asks them to enjoy it. You find yourself laughing when you know you shouldn't be.
Andrea Studley, who directs and acts in the play, co-wrote it with fellow Deuce founder and husband Michael Catangay. It originally premiered in October. "Deuce always starts with an idea we want to explore," Studley explains — and this time it was race. As the couple searched for an idea for an original work based on race and racism, they looked to local stories. "Prior to and since the election of President Obama, we were struck with how much racism still played a role in people's attitudes. At the same time, his election shows that things, of course, have progressed. But let's be honest about how far we still have to go."
Studley and Catangay discovered the story of Daniel Duncan, the last man hanged in the state of South Carolina. It was the eve of his wedding night when the young African-American man was arrested and executed for allegedly killing a Jewish merchant. After the 1911 hanging, Charleston was hit by a major hurricane that became known as the Duncan Storm. Some believed that it was due to the hanging of an innocent man.
In the course of their research, Studley and Catangay cited books on the trial by Batt Humphreys and Danny Crooks. "We use some actual trial transcripts in the play," Studley says. "Danny Crooks has worked with us and been very helpful in helping us get this story out. In this 100-year-old true story of a murder, trial, and hanging, can we say for sure who is guilty or innocent? Was justice possible for an African American in Jim Crow-era Charleston?"
But why the minstrel format? Studley says that they chose the minstrel approach "as a powerful way to illustrate how racism was so accepted as a popular form of entertainment during the time of this story." She adds, "We include the African-American stereotypes used then — and that still linger today in figures like Aunt Jemima — and add stereotypes of the other segments of Charleston society at the time — white, Jewish — with some male actors playing women, as was done in the past, as well as women playing men.
"We basically try to offend everyone equally, painfully, in order to make our point," Studley adds. "We want the audience to be shocked at how this was ever OK ... and see, admit to ourselves, how similar caricatures are still accepted today."
If you don't believe her, just turn on your television and see some of the, as was coined by Spike Lee, "coonery buffoonery" that exists on many networks (see any TV show by Tyler Perry). We are so often unaware of the skewing of the truth of who African Americans are that this imagery goes unnoticed. That won't happen for you during Duncan Storm. You'll see it's disturbingly clear. But it has a point.
The piece has been reworked a bit for this incarnation. During the play's initial run, Deuce held a talk-back following each performance, allowing the audience to vent and question and offer critiques. What they discovered from the first run is that people wanted to know more about Daniel Duncan. Using these talk-backs to expand the show has resulted in the addition of a new character.
Take note: This is not a musical for children. If you decide to take your kids, trust that you are going to have to explain a lot more than the plot. What the children aren't able to articulate about the uneasy feeling they get, you're going to want to make them understand both what they see and why they feel so badly about it.