Unsettling and compelling, Max Sparber’s “Minstrel Show or the Lynching of William Brown” re-creates a harrowing true story about the 1919 lynching of a jailed black man, as seen through the eyes of a couple of fictional song-and-dance men. The season opener for New Jersey Repertory Company begins on a light note with a couple of knockabout minstrel comics singing “yahoo” songs from the cotton fields, then quickly turns into a graphic narrative of angry crowd hysteria.
In Omaha, Neb., amid the broken glass and debris of a ravaged county courthouse, two traveling African-American entertainers recount the mob violence they witnessed that ultimately took the lives of a half-dozen innocent spectators. Target of the collective fury was William Brown, who was accused of molesting a 19-year-old white girl.
The two-hander begins with Sho-Nuff (Kelcey Watson) and Yas-Yas (Spencer Scott Barros) illustrating the origins of the minstrel show, when white entertainers blackened their faces with burnt cork. Subsequently, even black artists had to coat themselves with shoe polish.
Through their narrative, the minstrel entertainers, who traveled the country singing and dancing in “coon shows” or “Tableaux of Negro Life,” tell of their arrest for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct, after a dozen hooded men beat several black members in their audience.
They witnessed the violence from their jail cell. Sho-Nuff graphically describes the mob mentality of the 5,000 rioters who stormed the Douglas County Courthouse, broke the windows and battered down the oak door to gain access to the unfortunate 40-year-old prisoner Brown, who was awaiting trial.
The “end men” are skillfully realized by Watson and Barros. One can very nearly see the mindless violence as described in Barros’ chilling panoramic description of the lynching and murder. The narrative is given a sense of cinematic urgency in Rob Urbinati’s taut, rhythmic staging of playwright Sparber’s engrossing historical document, which resonates with unflinching horror.
The play continues to draw controversy as black members of the Long Branch community raised objections to the original poster and newspaper ad that showed cartoonish figures of minstrel performers standing near a hangman’s noose. The vintage image of the entertainers was subsequently pulled from the ads.