Some art that deals with racism tries not to make people uncomfortable. It's a touchy subject, even five decades after the heyday of the civil rights movement, so it's common to give an audience a sympathetic figure to identify with and a loathsome character to feel superior to.
Deuce Theatre's production of "The Duncan Storm," presented at Pure Theatre, is an exception, a show that uses deeply uncomfortable imagery and historical entertainment to challenge the audience.
Conceived and directed by two of the co-stars, Andrea Studley and Michael Catangay, "The Duncan Storm" features seven actors (four white, two black, one Asian) in minstrel show getup, complete with faces painted black-and-white. The actors go back and forth between playing black character stereotypes (Jim Crow, Miss Ditty LeBlanc, Fatti J'Mammy), Jewish character stereotypes (Shmoul Finkelstein, Hymie Shylockowitz) and caricatures of the white southern hierarchy (Jasmine Mixon, Mrs. Ann Calhoonery).
In the middle of the show, the minstrel players begin to reenact the true story of Daniel Duncan, a black man wrongfully accused and executed for the murder of a Jewish shopowner. The titular historical storm was seen by many as heavens' response to the injustice.
The performers throw themselves into the jokey, embarrassing stereotypes of what was once the most popular form of entertainment in America, complete with deliberately clumsy choreography and mispronounced words ("number" is "numuhber," "interracial" is "interfacial").
To add to the uneasiness, the cast sometimes interacts with or includes audience members in the action, asking them to act as witnesses to or jury members in Duncan's trial. Patrons never are allowed to distance themselves from the spectacle; the play forces them to confront what happens when, as one character says, we "laugh at the expense of others."
It's a dehumanizing affair, with purpose - minstrel shows allowed white audiences to view other ethnicities as lesser people. It's entertainment that encourages demonization, the kind of view that makes it easy to railroad an innocent man because of his race and proximity to a crime.
By the time of Duncan's hanging, the freak carnival atmosphere subsides for a moment of humanity. The show makes a point of not using minstrelry to show how far we've come, but as a way to shine light on wounds that aren't fully healed.
Max O'Connell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.