The American minstrel show — historically performed by white actors who danced and pranced across the stage in blackface — at once humanized and stereotyped African-Americans. By the early 20th century, the form had become racist and objectionable. Jason Christophe White’s “The Dance: The History of American Minstrelsy” examines the minstrel show from the perspective of two African-American actors who perform in blackface. An intriguing idea, but the 60-minute exercise falters in execution.
White and White — the pair are not related, but are co-directors and producers — don traditional blackface: tar-black makeup, white rings around the mouth and bright red lipstick, plus curly-headed fright wigs. The makeup seems patterned on Al Jolson’s Gus Jackson, a recurring character in “Bombo,” “Big Boy” and other musicals.
Perry is dressed outlandishly, with a black shirt and shorts under brown plaid coveralls and knee-high zebra-striped socks. MC, on the other hand, could be right out of the Ivy League — blue blazer, grey slacks and red-patterned tie — albeit with black-and-white two-toned shoes and that painted face.
Perry supplies a bit of Jolson as he lip-synchs “My Mammy.” Mostly, though, “The Dance” skips through the centuries, trying to link what was then with what is now. This is the sort of thing director-writer George C. Wolfe has handled expertly from time to time, however, while much of what White and White try to accomplish is worthy, the lack of focus and a strong guiding force is felt continually.
Both performers work earnestly, and there’s much to admire in the enterprise. Two highly effective moments near evening’s end help pick things up, but not enough to turn the tide. Anyone especially interested in minstrelsy may find plenty to embrace, but for general audiences, “The Dance” makes for rough theatergoing.