Review: The high-octane ‘Tambo & Bones’ scrutinizes the inescapable legacy of minstrelsy
Minstrelsy should be vociferously condemned but its centrality in American culture cannot be denied. “Jim Crow,” the name associated with the laws and practices of racial segregation, comes from a character developed by Thomas D. Rice, who’s been called “the father of American minstrelsy.”
“Jumping” Jim Crow purportedly was based on an actual enslaved person Rice claimed to have seen singing and dancing with what was later described by a theatrical colleague as a “laughable limp.” The heartlessness of this phrase perfectly sums up the cruelty of a once-popular, now proscribed entertainment that always seems to be bubbling up from the collective American unconscious.
In her short, useful book “Blackface,” scholar Ayanna Thompson defines American Blackface minstrelsy, which arose in the early 19th century and took off after the Civil War, “as a specific comedic performance tradition that according to its own logic, imitates, celebrates, and mocks the actions of Black Americans.” The point is to subjugate and humiliate under the guise of amusement.
“Tambo & Bones,” a new play by Dave Harris that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, scrutinizes the inescapable legacy of minstrelsy in Black entertainment. At the start of this rambunctious 90-minute production, two Black performers who are well-versed in minstrel shtick are hoping a white audience will be delighted enough by their routines to toss them some quarters. (The racial composition of the audience before which “Tambo & Bones” is performed naturally changes how this plays out.)
Dressed like vagabonds on a set with fake pastoral scenery, Tambo (W. Tré Davis) and Bones (Tyler Fauntleroy) are trying to give a paying white crowd what it wants. What exactly do these spectators want? To feel superior, of course. But how?