Differences in Skin Color

The journey to East Palestine, Ohio, on a rainy Saturday evening in early March, began with a phoned-in tip a few days before.
The caller, a colleague at another news outlet, assumed that I would jump at the chance to write about a show that billed itself “The 57th Year East Palestine All Eagles Minstrel Show.” Her instincts were correct. A quick Google search confirmed that a performance was scheduled for March 9.
Further web sleuthing turned up photos from past E.P. Eagles productions, including at least one blackface performer and several white-faced minstrels. What in the name of Jim Crow was wrong with these people, I wondered.
It would’ve been too much to expect the good people of East Palestine, with a population of 4,700 with less than one percent black residents, to be “woke,” but I assumed everyone in America had the internet by now. After all, we weren’t that far removed from blackface controversies that ensnared Virginia’s governor, that state’s attorney general and the Republican speaker of the Virginia house.
When I told my friend and PG colleague Steve Mellon about a minstrel show being performed an hour away in an obscure corner of Ohio’s post-industrial valley, he was even more eager to see, experience and photograph it than I was.
It seemed hard to believe that a tradition that can be traced to 1828, when Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice became the first white man to perform in blackface as Jim Crow, was still alive and kicking in the 21st century.
After another colleague drove to East Palestine to procure tickets for us before the show sold out, Steve and I were prepared for an evening of predestined, righteous outrage.
Concerned that he might be barred from bringing his camera into the venue to shoot, Steve contacted the East Palestine Eagles, the sponsor of the annual minstrel show fundraiser, to let them know we were coming.
They were cordial, but firmly insisted cameras wouldn’t be welcome in the hall. At that point, we both had visions of stereotypes running wild on the stage. If we couldn’t shoot whatever awaited us, we at least wanted to witness it.
As a Philadelphian, I figured that whatever awaited us couldn’t be worse than what a person would see marching down Broad Street in my home town during annual Mummers Day parades in the 1960s and ’70s.
I figured there would be a few people wearing dark grease paint while finger-plucking banjos and singing in what they imagined to be old Negro dialect. Yeah, I was expecting a heavy dose of Stephen Foster songs.
We were relieved to have our tickets in hand just in case the East Palestine Eagles decided to impose a media blackout (so to speak). When we went back online to double-check a few things about the performance, the images of blackface and whiteface minstrels we’d seen earlier were gone. Geez, were they trying to gaslight us already?
Fortunately, Steve made screen grabs when they were up, but it was already looking pretty weird. Why pretend that minstrels and minstrelsy somehow wouldn’t be a major part of a contemporary minstrel show?
Curiosity, suspicion
The hourlong drive was uneventful, though we ran into a torrential downpour as we crossed the street from the crowded parking lot to 320 East Taggart St., the combination lodge, performance space and bar/restaurant known to

locals as the East Palestine Eagles Nest.
From the moment we stepped dripping wet through the door, it was obvious we weren’t from those parts. A waitress took our tickets and politely escorted us to our seats through throngs of smiling and nodding East Palestinians. The vibe in the room was one more of curiosity and neighborliness than suspicion about our motives.
I was definitely the only black person there that night, but Steve probably wasn’t the only white Kentuckian in that building by a long shot. People were very cool, but there was never any doubt we were deep in the heart of Appalachia.
Unexpected performance
The first thing we noticed once the show started was the complete absence of blackface or whiteface on any of the performers. With few exceptions, the roughly 25 musicians and performers crammed into the performance space wore white tuxedos, red carnations and red suspenders. They could’ve been a musical revue put together by East Palestine’s Chamber of Commerce.
Because they were mostly middle-aged and older white men with only a few under-30 performers among them, they looked more like the Lawrence Welk Orchestra than anyone’s idea of a minstrel troupe. They were various town officials, small business owners, entrepreneurs, retirees, actual musicians, blue-collar workers and folks who had figured out how to stay in East Palestine with their dignity intact after the economy went south.
Yet, they were minstrel troupe adjacent. They opened with a very sanitized version of “Bring Back Those Minstrel Days,” with lyrics that hint at minstrelsy’s inglorious past without embracing it too wholeheartedly.
Like all classic minstrel shows, the “Old Fashion Minstrel Show 57th Year 2019” featured a revolving cast of “endmen” – officially designated rascals whose job it was to introduce songs while sparring light-heartedly with the other performers.
Sometimes the jokes would get bawdy and sexually suggestive, but nothing even remotely denigrating about black people or other minorities was said or sung on the stage that night – and I was listening closely.
The musical performances, while solidly amateurish, appeared heartfelt and well rehearsed. After all, it was an annual fundraiser for several local charities and agencies that help people in the community.
When soloist Rex Wilson stepped to the mic to sing “Mack the Knife,” he knew how to connect with the audience. When Jim Bacon sang “Travelin’ Man,” he demonstrated superior vocal skills.
The musical offerings that night were standard and inoffensive, with highlights that included “Basin Street Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Anything But Love,” “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” and an instrumental take on “My Blue Heaven.”
While there were sentimental songs, there was no equivalent of “The Old Darky” trope or anyone waxing nostalgic over slavery and racial oppression. No one sang in a plantation dialect or wept for the return of antebellum life (the chorus to “Bring Back Those Old Minstrel Days” being the only exception).
Other than a truly funny penile enlargement joke that brought down the house, this was the most family-friendly entertainment I’d experienced in years. Yet, there remained a yawning chasm between what is implied by identifying with the minstrel show tradition and what was ultimately delivered on stage that night.
Why court the controversy, negative media coverage and hurt feelings that would automatically be generated by invoking offensive stereotypes by promising a “minstrel show,” even if in name only? The relative blandness of the performance made it feel anticlimactic.
Of course, Steve and I wondered what happened to the blackface and white-faced performers that had once been a part of the show and had recently been featured on the website. Their swift removal was a clear acknowledgement, even if unspoken, that times had changed. Even as we applauded the men who bowed on stage after their performance of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” we had a lot of questions.
PC minstrelsy
After the performance, Steve and I were immediately approached by members of the cast and various support people eager to get our take on the evening. Speaking for myself, I was entertained, if somewhat disappointed by the lack of outrage-producing moments. As a columnist, I live for those moments. This was like going to Las Vegas

to see Don Rickles but having to settle for Pat Boone.
Far from being offended by my lack of outrage, they were pleased by it. They were desperate not to have offended anyone, especially a black person. Because I have a very distinctive laugh, they knew they were half way home.
More than one person asked us if we were aware that one of the youngest performers on stage that evening was biracial. No one would come out and say it, but they wanted us and all the people an hour away in Pittsburgh to understand how not-racist they are in East Palestine, Ohio.
They wished the estimated 10 to 15 black people who lived in the area had come to the show to see for themselves how non-racist it was rather than believe media reports that weren’t based on having seen the show.
Though offered sincerely, it was disingenuous to complain about black people believing negative press about the show when there are certain expectations baked into what any reasonable person can assume when stumbling upon something advertised as a “minstrel show.”
There was grudging acknowledgment that what was performed on March 9 was a completely different show than it would’ve been in the 1960s and 70s or even a decade ago.
At one time, even the family-friendly show in East Palestine reflected some of the problematic elements of minstrel shows. But it hasn’t been that in a long, long time, the people who talked to us insisted. No one would say the last time they’d seen someone wearing blackface on the stage – or even white-face, for that matter. There are limits to what they’re willing to talk about even on background.
Then there is the biggest question of all – why call the annual musical review fundraiser a minstrel show at all if all the worst aspects of minstrelsy have been removed from it? Why not just call it “The East Palestine Old Timey Musical Revue” or something less fraught with the weight of historical judgment?
Many conspiratorial whispers later, we’ve heard the same excuse from several people used to explain why a non- minstrel show advertises itself as a minstrel show – tradition. Some people just don’t want to let go of the term “minstrel show” even as every element of a real minstrel show is left on the cutting room floor.
“We really shouldn’t use the term at all,” one performer who was intimately involved in the production said. “It’s not worth the trouble, but you have oldtimers who don’t want to let it go. I think this may be the last year you see the word minstrel in the program booklet.”
On the drive back to Pittsburgh, Steve and I compared notes about what we saw on stage that night. We were both disappointed by the lack of antebellum drama and controversy, but we were also relieved that the good people of East Palestine are beginning to realize that singing “Bring Back Those Minstrel Days,” even without the makeup, really isn’t a good look for them.
Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.
CAPTION: PHOTO: Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette: The East Palestine Eagles, located on East Taggart Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on the night of the All Eagles Minstrel Show on March 9. PHOTO: Library of Congress: Minstrel shows, such as the one advertised on this poster from 1900, historically featured white performers in blackface, with much of the content mocking black people.

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