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Masks in Disguise: Exposing Minstrelsy and Racial Representation within American Tap Dance Performances of the Stage, Screen, and Sound Cartoon, 1900-1950

  • Author(s): Shiovitz, Brynn Wein
  • Advisor(s): Foster, Susan L
  • et al.
Abstract

ABSTRACT OF THE DISSERTATION

Masks in Disguise:

Exposing Minstrelsy and Racial Representation within American

Tap Dance Performances of the Stage, Screen, and Sound Cartoon, 1900-1950

by

Brynn Wein Shiovitz

Doctor of Philosophy in Culture and Performance

University of California, Los Angeles, 2016

Professor Susan Leigh Foster, Chair

Masks in Disguise: Exposing Minstrelsy and Racial Representation within American Tap Dance Performances of the Stage, Screen, and Sound Cartoon, 1900-1950, looks at the many forms of masking at play in three pivotal, yet untheorized, tap dance performances of the twentieth century in order to expose how minstrelsy operates through various forms of masking. The three performances that I examine are: George M. Cohan’s production of Little Johnny Jones (1904), Eleanor Powell’s “Tribute to Bill Robinson” in Honolulu (1939), and Terry-Toons’ cartoon, “The Dancing Shoes” (1949). These performances share an obvious move away from the use of blackface makeup within a minstrel context, and a move towards the masked enjoyment in “black culture” as it contributes to the development of a uniquely American form of entertainment. In bringing these three disparate performances into dialogue I illuminate the many ways in which American entertainment has been built upon an Africanist aesthetic at the same time it has generally disparaged the black body. These three shows replaced the practice of blacking up with new (invisible) means of masking; by relying heavily on music, dance, narrative, and technology, and taking the focus away from the black and/or black-faced body, these shows offered national unity through the exclusion of an Other in a socially accepted manner.

I have constructed a theory of covert minstrelsy to describe a process that occurs when a choreographer, director, or animator utilizes a combination of invisible masks simultaneously in an effort—though not always a conscious one—to distract the audience from seeing all parts of the whole. In each of the performances I analyze, these different masks interact to produce an “agreeable” show that places artificial boundaries between the supposed threat of the black body and the alleged purity of a nation that favors its white citizens. I seek to illuminate how the very simultaneity of perceptible (yet invisible) components goes unnoticed under deceptive narratives and political charades; minstrelsy need not be blatant or even visible to construct a social paradigm of the “Other”.

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