What it is…

The piece started from a personal feeling of restriction. As an artist I was starting to see the fabric of this social game that I didn’t want to play – attending parties, “being in the right place at the right time” – all suggestions given to me about how to move up the choreographic ladder. I didn’t understand why I just couldn’t be supported as an artist without doing superficial things.

Personal confession: I watch Bamboozled at least once a year. It’s kinda like Roots for me; when it’s on, I watch it. It grounds me, connects me to the past, but also informs how I look at the current situation of artists in the world. I have always been fascinated with Spike Lee’s concept of current day “minstrelsy” and his depiction of this phenomenon spreading like a disease. People who were once appalled by the idea of bringing such a racist and demeaning pastime to the 21st century stage were suddenly wearing a type of “black face,” responding to every word the interlocutor (producer) spewed with great enthusiasm.


I think about Dave Chappelle caught up in this 21st century “minstrel” quandary. Here’s a man who was at the height of his career and he turned down a 50 million dollar contract to continue his #1 show. A man who once felt like people were laughing with him started seeing things differently and he did one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen an artist do. He walked away from it all, the money, the fame…everything. People said he was crazy, but I saw an artist who had reached his limit. Once dancing, he found himself “shuffling” and instead of compromising his integrity, he chose to leave.

I have been appalled for some time by the rise of reality shows and how producers are willing to exploit people’s lives, mostly to their own detriment. It’s the craze of our times! However, what could have been a fierce opportunity to have a social commentary about issues regarding race, religion, and sexism, has now become a platform for instant success based on who can have the most catfights or the foulest mouths. Why are these the depictions of Black women that I see permeating my television screen? As a Black woman, the majority of images that I see of myself are stereotypical images. There is nothing new about these images except for the fact that, perhaps, WE are now perpetuating our own stereotypes.

What do we do? What can we do?

At first, in the creation of Mr. Tol E. RAncE, I wanted to tie my personal frustrations with those of the first Black performers on Broadway. It was my way of connecting the past with the present. A friend gave me Mel Watkins’ book, On the Real Side, and suggested that I read the chapter about Vaudeville and Broadway. I did, but I also read the chapters before. The idea of the “inside” and “outside” perception of Blacks was something I was already investigating and reading Watkins perspective sealed the deal for me to keep moving forward with this journey. The book for me wasn’t just about minstrelsy, but it was about what happens to the human spirit behind the mask. He chose to speak through the lens of humor and traced the origins of black American entertainment back to the slave plantation. The Dozens, jive talk, etc…, all had origins that started back in slavery. I always knew how to play The Dozens, but had no idea that it was a term that described the slaves who were considered “bad,” sold in groups of 12. Reading this book, I was so moved by our perseverance, our struggles, our joy, our pain…

In reading Watkins’ book, I was also greatly moved by what I learned about Bert Williams. I couldn’t stop thinking about the W.C. Fields quote, “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” How could that be? The funniest man died severely depressed, never fulfilled and a lot of Black entertainers share the same fate. Humor comes from pain. As an artist some of my strongest works have come from a place of great struggle. In some ways I see myself as living a “comedian’s” life. But, when do I feel like I’m “shuffling” instead of dancing?

I started creating sections specifically about minstrelsy and Bert Williams that dealt with the pain underneath the mask, but as time went on I understood the importance of showing the relevance of this story today. For the past couple years I’ve seen a lot of Black artists in my generation talking about minstrelsy in some form be it song, theater, or art. I performed The Real Cool at a showcase last year, and a Black female tapper, who was also a painter, showed me a painting she created of Bert Williams. I wasn’t the only one! There is a movement happening. Now, how do I make others talk and address the issue so we start moving together?

I started tying all of my emotions together and asking myself questions. What is minstrelsy? What did Black artists have to tolerate in the past? What do they tolerate today? How much of this are we perpetuating? I find myself still asking questions and want to ask the questions of the audience: Why do you laugh? Why are things funny?

With minstrelsy, this piece is also about perception and race. When you start talking about race, people get very tense. We all have our thoughts on race based on our own perceptions and experiences. This work is not about proving a point. Telling you as the viewer what’s right or wrong. Our story is too complex and I feel it wouldn’t be fair to our legacy if I make this a one sided story. This was an extremely intense and new process for the dancers and me. There were so many discoveries! It’s also about a celebration!

I see pain in our struggle, but I also see joy. It’s a personal story. It’s a Black story. It’s a human story… I want people to see that you aren’t just outside looking in on a Black story. We’re all in the same house – dealing with the same issues one way or another. We ALL wear a mask. We are ALL perceived differently than how we really are. We are ALL put in a box.

This is a dialogue, bringing all these issues and emotions to the forefront. I believe this is how we all move closer to understanding each other and the world.

Let’s talk about it.

Gwendolyn Baum