Reviewed by Glenda Frank
Presented by Tribeca Lab and Posie Productions at Collective: Unconscious, 145 Ludlow Street, NYC, Aug. 17-26.
We all know words that turn heads, like "sex," "hot IPO," or "politically incorrect." And political incorrectness—airing the skeletons of racism as entertainment—is the big draw for "The American Slave Code," a Fringe show that bills itself as a rousing, old-time minstrel show.
Writer/adapter David Pilot has uncovered some great material, culled from historical documents, old films, sheet music, recordings, and correspondence. The opening slide show of song sheets with outrageous titles and illustrative caricatures is worth the price of admission. Later, there's a film montage of black images that awakens all sorts of feelings: racist cartoons that make you cringe, footage of a young Ella Fitzgerald and Paul Robeson, a funny scene from "Blazing Saddles," even Elvis Presley. Many of the images have nothing to do with minstrel shows.
"The American Slave Code" has several parts. The meeting of the Urban Plantation Anti-Abolitionists Society is a good dramatized history lesson, as the cold-blooded conversation about mutilations, murder, and sales of African Americans is belied by the men's courtly nonchalance. The slave sale is chilling, especially when the men surrounding the slave open his mouth or stare at his genitals.
But much more energy and talent should have gone into the minstrel show—that is what's fringe and fresh. It lets us look at taboo show biz routines for ourselves. And for the most part (with two exceptions), the revue is ineptly performed, by men wearing cheap wigs (which didn't always stay on), red lipstick, and what looked like badly applied facial masks rather than black face. It looked like amateur night. The white gloves under the ultraviolet lighting, and the use of a black narrator were good touches. The satirical sincerity of "Massa's in de Cold Ground" was clever and poignant, which is probably what Pilot and his team planned in the first place—but rarely achieved. q