The Blackface Project (by Norman-Reaves Productions from Cincinnati) tells the true tale of the faustian covenant between Bert Williams (1874-1922) and the great white whale known as early 20th-century Broadway. Williams has the unique opportunity to be the first black man to perform on the coveted stage, but only if painted up in blackface, since white folks weren’t comfortable with a black man showing his true colors onstage at this point in American history. Bert’s producer, a hypocritical sociopath, is incapable of seeing his star actor’s plight as anything more than subhuman, despite his fondness for his black hen who lays golden eggs. While dealing with the erosion of his own dignity, Bert’s castmates are also caught in their own cyclical hells that force them to question their worth as humans.
Bert’s talents could take him far beyond the success of a negro minstrel in a colorblind world, but 1910 America isn’t ready to appreciate his talent to its full capacity, leaving him a broken parader of racial stereotypes relying on gin and secrecy to cope. Bert’s mother is left in the dark about his role in the show and, as an audience member observed after the show while walking away from the theater, “Nothing good will come of anything you’ve got to hide from your mama.”
This is a powerful production, presented at Gabriel’s Corner (Sycamore at Liberty). Funny, tragic and thought-provoking, The Blackface Project incorporates wonderful use of simple lighting to silhouette the characters in powerful portraiture — everyone’s the same color in shadow. The show is bookended by performances of the cringe-inducing “If the Man in the Moon Were a Coon,” which serves as a hauntingly perfect contrast to Bert’s plight, where he must further blacken his skin and traipse beneath his potential to gain the petty approval from his reluctantly accepting crowd.
The performances in The Blackface Project are top-notch, finding humor in the bleakest corners while maintaining a level of dramatic bravado that beckons the audience to reflect on how cruel life is, even when you’re told you should be grateful.