Spoleto 2014 » Comedy

The Duncan Storm uses blackface and minstrelsy to tell a tale of racial woe

Whoa, Black Betty



The Duncan Storm is a minstrel show with blackface about the Jim Crow-era hanging of a (probably) innocent black man in Charleston. Written and directed by a couple of white Yankee transplants. How could this possibly go wrong?

"It's a rough show," says director Michael Catangay, who co-wrote and co-directs the show with his wife Andrea.

Back in 2010, when Deuce Theatre debuted its original act based on the real-life 1911 trial of Daniel Duncan, City Paper reviewer Joy Vandervort-Cobb came away puzzled by the local theater company's decision to resurrect the racially offensive minstrel tradition. "If the minstrel show was usually whites in blackface or, later in the century, blacks in blackface," she wrote, "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?'"

In the play, the actors use two-toned facepaint so they can alternate between playing black and white characters.

So, why use the minstrel format to talk about race? "[Andrea] was doing some research, and she thought maybe a minstrel show would be the clear-cut way to illustrate racism, the way that those minstrel shows were a form of entertainment at the time and they were accepted," Catangay says.

The real Daniel Duncan is regarded by some historians as a victim of a broken justice system. On the day that Max Lubelsky, a Jewish store owner, was found murdered in his King Street shop, a mob seized 23-year-old Duncan, who happened to be on the street nearby. Police intervened before the mob could lynch Duncan and then charged him with Lubelsky's murder. After a trial in which key witnesses contradicted each other's statements, a jury found Duncan guilty, and a judge handed down a death sentence. Daniel Duncan was the last person to be hanged in Charleston County.

"We've never wanted to present this material in such a way that it's preachy, because people don't want to sit through that," Catangay says. "They'll get the message."

The play is, on its surface, just as campy and outrageous as the original minstrel shows were. There are musical numbers sung by Klansmen, high-stepping dance routines, and wanton breaks of the fourth wall. "People are laughing at the read-throughs and rehearsals, but it's like, man, we shouldn't be laughing," Catangay says.

As one audience member noted in 2010, The Duncan Storm is an "equal-opportunity offender." At one point in the play, two Jewish characters, in the midst of a softshoe routine, break out in a series of racial jokes that lash out at nearly every ethnic group historically represented in Charleston.

"The jokes are horrible, but at the same time, people still tell these jokes. People still feel this way about certain things," Catangay says. "I mean clearly, look what happened a few weeks ago with Donald Sterling from the L.A. Clippers. It's topical, and it's still here."

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