Strange Fruit

'The Last Minstrel Show' makes entertainment out of tragedy

"Don't worry--we don't lynch anybody until the second act," says our host for the evening. "Gives folks a chance to relax." ¬ Gavin Lawrence as the Interlocutor in The Last Minstrel Show is sleek, sly, and not at all reassuring in his oversized cutaway coat, pin-striped pants, white spats, and Cheshire grin. Never mind that the play's first act includes a boldly choreographed rape scene and a liberal use of that racial epithet perennially voted most likely to make white people cringe. Relaxing it ain't. But, believe it or not, The Last Minstrel Show is fun--as in fast-moving, entertaining, surprising, smart, smoothly written, and, you know, filled with music and dancing the way any show about three lynchings would have to be in order to work as entertainment.

After three black men falsely accused of rape were lynched in June 1920, the city of Duluth and the state of Minnesota tried to forget--even though a crowd of nearly 3,000 people had gathered to witness and participate. According to playwright John B. Davidson, court records were burned and the Duluth Historical Society discouraged research into the event. It was as if, as the ensemble sings, "nothing happened that night."

At the time, the lynchings earned headlines in newspapers across the country. But memories receded to the point where most Minnesotans were unaware of the crime. In 1992, when The Last Minstrel Show premiered at the Penumbra, the play helped resurrect the tragedy. Since then Duluth has erected a memorial to the three men, the Minnesota Historical Society Press published Michael Fedo's The Lynchings in Duluth, and Minnesota Public Radio produced a special. And now Davidson's new production company, Amuthest, has revived the play for the Great American History Theatre.

Davidson constructed the production as a Vaudeville minstrel show, with Lawrence's Interlocutor as our guide. Behind disconcertingly steady eyes, Lawrence gives a strong performance, balancing a bit of friendly reassurance with the personal anger that any black person could feel when hearing of the lynchings. The rest of the ensemble spends much of the show in the old minstrel postures: lips pursed, arms bent, backs arched, butts out, knees swinging wildly. (If choreographer Garry Q. Lewis meant for the result to be disturbing, he has succeeded.) While the cast acts out the events of 1920--set to cleverly chosen music, from vaudeville and doo-wop to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"--they also break character to remind us that there are 21st-century lessons to be learned, along with 21st-century emotions that could still bubble up in a mixed-race cast and audience.

In a standout performance as Billy, ensemble member Bruce Thompson is a frequent foil. His difficult job is to remind us that, despite the laughs and the music, we are watching a tragedy, even as the rest of the ensemble keeps grinning and frog-stepping. Other standouts include Jamila Anderson, whose performance of the song "What's That (Hanging from That Tree)?" stops the show, and Julius C. Collins, who displays serious vocal talent as the fourth accused rapist (who escaped lynching but was later tried and convicted in a joke of a trial).

Run by Davidson and seasoned producer Myron Odegaard, Amuthest plans to mount four more productions in the coming months, including one Christmas show and another based on the life of Hubert Humphrey. Judging from the full house and enthusiastic crowd on opening night of their first production, I'd say they're off to a fine start.

 
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