Fort Worth — For approximately 40 years between the late 1800s and the 1920s, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in America, the forerunner to the variety show. It had a mixed bag of rapidly moving skits and bits, comedic sketches, physical humor, song and dance, and animal acts. Minstrelsy was different. It featured white performers exaggeratedly ridiculing the appearance and behavior of blacks for the purpose of entertainment. Blackface minstrelsy was so-called because the performers applied burnt cork to their faces and white face paint to exaggerate their lips. Minstrel shows quickly became extremely popular with tour stops dotting the Mississippi River. The intentionally distorted imagery of blackface minstrelsy came to signify blackness and culture for its white audiences.
Surprisingly, black actors began to perform in blackface minstrel shows, and eventually there were a couple of black-owned and -produced minstrel show traveling troupes. While this part of the history remains understandably controversial among black people, it is nevertheless true.
Jordan E. Cooper’s Masked wants to tell this story through a fictional character, Jarvis“ Jansy” Blake (Lewis Anderson). In its current iteration, presented by DVA Productions, Masked is really a one-man show of staged monologues around Jansy’s rise and fall in show business. The setting of this piece is undefined but the time is 1960 and Jansy (or the ghost of Jansy) is talking directly to the audience.
Jansy relates his show business beginnings and how he received his nickname. He justifies his decision to perform in blackface minstrelsy, acknowledging that he receives heavy criticism from within the black community. Jansy achieves a high level of success, marries, purchases a mansion, and hires servants. Then a traumatic event happens that changes his circumstances and the trajectory of his career.
Masked is a sputtering script that squanders an opportunity to dig into an important and largely ignored story. The writing is not unsalvageable but it presently lacks cohesion, and in the resulting confusion, opportunities for accurately expanding the audience’s knowledge about blackface minstrelsy are lost. Language inconsistencies contribute to a fuzzy timeline. One example is the use of the expression “damn Skippy” which is of the ‘90s, not the minstrel era, and not within the timeframe stated in the program. There are several such instances that direction can easily repair.
Still, some of the monologues are effective, such as the relating of Jansy applying blackface for the first time. Director Sheran Goodspeed Keyton positions the makeup vanity center stage. The sight of Jansy seated behind that table slowly applying the black makeup is numbing. That is a salient moment and one of the few times when he is still, and freed of the extraneous movements weighting other areas of the action.
Lewis Anderson, a musician, is energetic and personable as Jansy. However, on opening weekend (the performance reviewed was Sunday) there were too many stumbles over lines to be ignored. It is obvious that his strength is singing. He has a beautiful soaring and lyrical singing voice. His strongest musical moment is sung a cappella. One wishes he had sung the other two numbers a cappella as well. This is a one-person show that needs only a minimal set and a performer with enough presence to command the stage. Anderson has presence. Cluttering the set with pieces and items that do not advance the story is a curious choice. (An early workshop of this play featured Major Attaway, who's now the understudy for Genie in Aladdin on Broadway.)
Can audiences enjoy this production? There is an audience for every production. With script doctoring and a different touch, a better telling of the story of blackface minstrelsy might be unmasked.