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Scottsboro Boys-A Modern Minstrel Play

My partner and I went to the Vintage Theatre a few nights ago in Denver Co, to see a musical titled “The Scottsboro Boys”. It is inspired by the true story of nine young African American men who were falsely accused of rape and arrested in the spring of 1931. The “Boys”, ages 12-19 were held in prison collectively for over 80 years. The case has inspired an array of art and literature including ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee loosely based on the case. The musical was also a minstrel play; minstrel being a type of comic approach show that specifically would mock people of African descent in a variety of acts, songs, dances, etc. “The Scottsboro Boys” play was not only exposing the history of the case but reintroducing the effects of a twisted, artistic, and racially motivated stage practice through minstrel shows. 

The play was specifically written for an all-black cast to always play it (minus one character.) The music score was exciting and engaging, upbeat when needed, and loaded with somber at other times. While also having a strange humorous tone to it that was almost offensive given the severity of the case. The tones and vibes the show played with kept me intrigued and in “Lala Land”, essentially separate from the emotion of the story. I laughed at the deputy and ignored the crying woman creeping in the corner of the stage… It wasn’t until the end of the show during a Q&A where the cast reminded the audience the play was Minstrel and specifically written to give these undertones of racism and irony to such a history. 

I was instantly ported into the art of the entire play and the way it was delivered to make you not only acknowledge the sick history and borderline humor and irony behind it but as well as delivering a perspective of how white America already viewed African Americans long before these young men were falsely arrested and held in prison-for a collective of 80 years. 

Minstrel shows began in 1830 before the American Civil War in the 1860s. White performers would imitate what they saw slaves doing. Whether that be dancing, singing, walking, or talking. They would perform this with burnt cork, or a black greasepaint on their faces with a white clown mouth, beginning the history of ‘Blackface’ -Jim Crow. 

Blackface minstrels were the first theatrical form that was distinctly American. It got so popular with entertainment methods in America it was introduced to an even classier setting like opera houses. Blackface was the “epicenter” of the music industry; meaning if it wasn’t blackface it wasn’t selling. Blackface was bridging gaps of ignorance with “Art” bringing out new numbers the entertainment industry hadn’t seen before.

Throughout the play there was a black woman present on stage who appeared to be mourning. She seemed to just hustle about feeling her feelings and crying. She was later revealed as the symbolism of the black mom, daughter, auntie, sister, that is present around any black man abused by the system. Reminding me of the black women we often see mourning the untimely death of their sons every other month on national news, or the sisters I’ve seen speaking on countless documentaries or interviews. The play was the evening after Nathaniel Woods’s execution in Alabama (the same state as Scottsboro). The “wailing women” gives the audience an emotional route into the story, without breaking minstrel formality of upbeat and silly. The woman just walked the stage in and out of backlight crying, wiping her eyes, then continuing into the next scene. Director Betty Hart chose to write the woman in with an extended amount of time than originally scripted.

The Scottsboro Boys is written in true minstrel form even has a closings scene with “The “Boys”  dressed in tuxedos and top hats with blackface painted, where they “shucked and jived” down the isles into the crowd and hit an intense crescendo in a song that bleeds with uncomfortably(the truest beauty in art). Being that my partner and I were the only blacks in that audience, we felt the air shift during this closing scene. The Q&A at the end of the show brought about an expression of that shift in energy. When one caucasian in attendance asked, “how are you all able to reopen the wounds you feel every show?”. The cast all jumped at once to answer but the lead role, Christopher Razor, responded passionately saying, “these aren’t old wounds. I. Am. A. Black. Person and I feel the occurrence of this situation almost every day. Who stood on the frontlines to protect these young men in Scottsboro, who said this is wrong

no one.” Even the lawyer who worked to defend them later had different views on the things he stood for. The audience paused and it seemed everyone felt the passion behind what Razor had said. Leading another caucasian patron to ask, “how does it feel to perform something like this in Colorado where it is mainly for a white audience?”

The actors responded that they felt “locked in with one another simply off looking alike and being black together in the space.” Much like the actual boys might have felt throughout the duration of the ordeal. Up until the blackface scene where they said they felt ”heavy emotion” when they surrounded the crowd. One caucasian woman who spoke during the Q&A was wiping tears as she spoke saying she was a “defense attorney and knowing what these boys had to go through absolutely broke her heart.” You could hear the pain and dismay in her voice. Everyone in the room could relate to the confusion of the why and how. 

Prompting another woman to ask, “how do you all process the emotion of the show night after night”. At least 4 actors responded saying, “a lot of crying” then laughing immediately afterward saying they definitely dropped a lot of tears backstage and over the course of time truly became the characters feeling the emotion they had. The Cast took 1 minute of silence every evening before a show for the nine young men involved. The director, Hart, mentioned having to take the usage of the term “boys” away from herself and the cast unless it was in the script. Knowing the term was often used to demean black men she didn’t want to play into the very subconscious the show was exposing.

The artistry within minstrel shows is imitation being flattery. White performers consistently brought a tone of “funny” to everything they did within it. Meaning that’s what they saw looking at their slaves. Dancing, singing, jokes, camaraderie, lack of structure in their terms of normality. 100 years later black authors and directors took the concept of twisted racist imitation art, imitated it. Incorporated a factual storyline, set a tone of faith, hope, support of one another, and tenacity within the boys/cast. At the same time ignoring the emotion of the story and simply placing a crying black woman in the corner of the room. Completely imitating the world around

them through art. “The Scottsboro Boys” play was the most eloquent interpretation of America I have ever seen, cast perfectly. The history, truth, and continuance of the situation is staggering and relevant, mind-blowing. 

Art has layers and can live on forever through interpretation, and questions. Erykah Badu once said, “the purpose of performance art is to spark a question in someone and inspire or challenge them to respond”. Minstrel shows as a whole had people asking about the heart and tenacity of a slave. And 100 years later black performers responded to the timelessness of minstrel show interpretation by attaching history and reoccurring ideologies. 

The Ice Cream Man

Royce Da 5’9 has new a tape out, “The Allegory”. There is an interlude on it titled “Ice Cream Interlude”. Beginning with a young kid asking a mom “hey mama, what’s an allegory? ” A woman answers the kid, “An allegory is a story with a subliminal meaning that has a political message based off the writer’s mind”

The Allegory

The interlude continues going into the kid wanting, then visiting the ice cream truck and the woman going into an explanation of the melody from the ice cream trucks origin, to the Ice Cream man. It all began with a man named Harry C Brown…

Brown wrote what is referred to as the most racist song in America ; “Ni***r Love a Watermelon Hahaha”, recorded with Columbia Records in 1916. The melody in “Ni***r love a watermelon” derived from a popular british folk song ‘Turkey and the Straw”.

Initially one could say the song on the ice cream truck is a shoutout to that earlier song.

But the melody hadn’t been introduced in the US until it was used in minstrel shows (racist films) creating the black face characters Zip Coon and Jim Crow.

Those two characters inspired “Amos N Andy”, the 1920-1960 sitcom. Although, the show began as a radio show called “Sam & Henry”, 2 white men who voiced southern black men moving to Chicago to follow their dreams, similar to the plot in “Amos N Andy’s”. 

When searching Amos N Andy on google photos of “Sam & Henry”, photos of the black cast from “Amos N Andy” and photos of white men in black face all show up.

The confusion further blurring and clarifying the lines of the potential and indefinite defamation of a people’s thorough race. That seems to be the grey area surfacing in the attempt to pinpoint the intents of connecting the “racist rabithole”melody, permanently to the truck.(then furthering it into popular children’s songs- Do your ears hang low). I encourage you to look it up yourself.

Yes, at a certain point speakers were put into the ice cream truck to play recognized film music to attract people….

But why did the industry of “ice cream trucking” leave it be. Why did they just silence the words rather than changing the song?

That brings my mind immediately back to Allegory; A story with a subliminal meaning that has a political message based off the writers mind.

Who or what is the story the writer is telling and what’s the meaning?

Facts are, the infamous melody always had a meaning behind the surface and it’s been as in our faces as “watermelon”.

For now, I did find a petition started a few years ago on Change.org prompting city officials to demand all ice cream trucks change the frequency and get in tune.

The few petitions I found were started in 2014. One had 20 supporters, another 7 and another 14. Maybe we should begin another one but are we all going to do our part to get it signed …. referenced links below.

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/05/11/310708342/recall-that-ice-cream-truck-song-we-have-unpleasant-news-for-you

ENEWS: https://www.eonline.com/uk/news/541451/the-ice-cream-truck-song-has-a-racist-history

Link To Full Royce 5’9 Tape :https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1MWghWX2oc&list=PLsAk6h4n-dS2XkdI31mm2E9tQMSmklwq_

Food For Thought: Synesthesia

Recently, I started my first semester working toward a bachelors in music. In my music theory class, my professor mentioned something that has now taken over my world. He told us about something called synesthesia. I had no idea what he was talking about. When he explained, I immediately had a mind blowing moment. Synesthesia is a neurological condition that bridges sensory pathways. To put it simply, imagine hearing the doorbell ring and hearing it triggers you to taste strawberries. It’s blending your senses.

I had been amazed that there was a small part of the population other than myself, that had this perception. Being a musician, I’ve always learned seeing music in color. Personally, when I hear certain notes, I see colors. Now you may be thinking, “That makes a lot of sense, how do I know if I have it”. About 4% of people are subject to this condition, so think of everyone you know with a peanut allergy and put them in a room with about 100 people. Most humans have a mild case of this which is why it’s a tangible concept.  If you remember back about 4 years, you remember the unanswered question, “ what color is this dress?”

You would hear, Black and Blue and then someone looking at the same picture would look at them like they were crazy and say it’s clearly Gold and White! This is similar response most Synesthetes would have listen to the same tune. So click on the video clip below and let’s see, what color do you hear?

Inavasive Transit

Denver Colorado is extremely suseptable to sex trafficing with having an international airport, convergence of major interstate highways and a large immigrant population.  The other day my partner and I were riding the Denver light rail train system. While leaning back with my arms well stretched into my partners space and over our the side of our 2 person seat. I noticed a larger caucasian man with a coat and large headphones zooming in and out on his camera phone. I stared at his phone with him. Watching him accidentally switch to self portrait mode periodically while zooming in and trying to focus on the front of the train.

First I could make out an arm and a leg. A long black winter jacket I couldn’t help but go on autopilot thinking how I wanted one. And when I blinked back into reality I noticed he had taken a picture. I recognized the train seats, the young girl pixelated into my vision on the screen. With the curly red “Brave” movie like hair and black coat. Sitting with her legs criss crossed and propped up on to the seat scrolling on her phone.

Though I knew my eyes weren’t lying I couldn’t believe it. So I snuck behind him and got a closer look. Sure enough he was taking photo after photo of a young woman on the train. Unaware that he was seen, he scrolled back through the photos some up close, full body, focus and unfocused. He was just staring at her.

By this time my partner was wondering why I had gotten up and what had my attention, I explained what was going on. The man was still endlessly gazing at the pictures. Appalled she wanted to tell the woman that someone had taken a photo of her without her consent or even knowledge. Ushering me to the left to slide out our seat, the train stopped. The young woman hurried off. 

Video recording and taking photos of woman can be a form of traffing, sex traffing is at an all time high, the number of women increaseing daily. He could have been sending them to someone or posting the photos somewhere inappropriately. It’s important as a community when we see things we act on them.

She got up, and sat across from the man. She then started the conversation saying, “you need to delete those pictures I’ve seen you take them.”

The man responded in a state of confusion denying what was being said to him.

She responded repeating herself verbatim to what she had said before.

He picked up his phone and I watched him delete at least 5 photos, I gave her a thumbs up. As she turned to leave the seat she asked if he had any woman in his life he would feel uncomfortable getting photographed on the train…

The practice of traffing sex is alive and active we can do our parts as individuals to say something when we see it.

  The man later moved seats behind my partner and began to film the back of us. I recorded him to avoid turning to stare into his camera.. After about 5 minutes of us recording each other the man walked towards us with his phone covering his face. I was nervous about him coming in front of me and having my own and my partners face on his personal camera phone.

As he stepped directly on the side of me I grabbed his camera out of his hands, my partner yelled at him. I slid the phone up the aisle, he chased it and got off the train. 

Be aware of your surroundings. When you see something you owe it to yourself to say something. It can be intimidating approaching a predator. We’ve included a hotline you can call to report suspicious activity. The safest way for families to deal with these kinds of interactions is to either take a picture or record it for proof,remove yourself from the train, and call a hotline or the police. The more open and honest we are about real issues, the more likely we are to build a community standard on how to handle it, and find a solution.

LCHT (Laboratory to combat human trafficking) is a local organization working to end trafficking. You can contact them at  303-295-0451 or text them at 720-999-9724. You can also call 866-455-5075 to report 24/7. 

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