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Blackface (or black-face) refers to the practice of a singer and/or comedian appearing on stage as a black person by painting the face.

Also referred to in some cases as a burnt cork mask and the performers referred to as burnt cork performers.

The practice originated as a performance tradition in America in the 1830s, quickly becoming popular globally, and would be most commonly associated with the minstrelsy tradition. Early white performers in blackface used burnt cork and later greasepaint or shoe polish to blacken their skin and exaggerate their lips, often wearing woolly wigs, gloves, tailcoats, or ragged clothes to complete the transformation[1]. Later, black artists also performed in blackface.

It occurred in a range of theatrical forms, variously referred to as Ethiopian burlesque, Ethiopian opera, Ethiopian sketch, negro burlesque, negro farce, negro sketch, nigger burlesque, nigger farce, nigger sketch), or darkey drama.

Variations of blackface performance are also found in a number of associated performance traditions, e.g. in the Mardi Gras tradition in the USA (see Staub, 1992) and the Coon Carnival in South Africa.

Performances of plays and films involving non-white characters (e.g. Othello) of course also employed a version of this technique over the ages.

See also Minstrels


W.J. Mahar. 1999. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Volume 442 of Music in American life. University of Illinois Press, 1999

Henry T. Sampson. 2013. Blacks in Blackface: A Sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows Second edition, Toronto: Scarecrow Press.

Charles White and George W.H. Griffin. 1874-1900 (8 volumes) Darkey plays: a collection of Ethiopian dramas, farces, interludes, burlesque operas, ecentricities, extravaganzas, comicalities, whimsicalities, etc., etc., as played by the principal "burnt cork" performers all over the union. New York: The Happy Hour Company[2]

Staub, A. 1992. "The social uses of festival: Transformation and disfiguration", South African Theatre Journal (SATJ), Volume 6:1, pp. 4-24.

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