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The Minstrel

A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories about distant places or about real or imaginary historical events. Though minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. Frequently they were retained by royalty and high society. As the courts became more sophisticated, minstrels were eventually replaced at court by the troubadours, and many became wandering minstrels, performing in the streets and became well liked until the middle of the Renaissance, despite a decline beginning in the late 15th century. Minstrelsy fed into later traditions of traveling entertainers, which continued to be moderately strong into the early 20th century, and which has some continuity down to today's buskers or street musicians.

For more information go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel

Minstrelsy or Minstrel shows

The form

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, performed by white people in "blackface"[1] or a burnt cork mask (sometimes called "burnt cork" performers) or, especially after the Civil War, also black people, also in "blackface".

A common theatrical form used by such troupes was the so-called Ethiopian burlesque, Ethiopian opera, Ethiopian skit, or Ethiopian sketch. Or more bluntly referred to as a negro burlesque, negro farce or negro sketch (or even less euphemistically nigger burlesque, nigger farce or nigger sketch). Another attempt at euphemism was darkey drama (used inter alia by the blackface performer Charles White).

The original "Christy's Minstrels"

Perhaps the troupe that has had the most influence on both the form and style of blackface[2] performance, internationally as well as South Africa, was the troupe known as Christy's Minstrels[3], formed in the town of Buffalo, New York by Edwin Pearce Christy, a well-known ballad singer, in 1843. Groups performing in this particular style often adopted the name Christys or Christy's.

The name sometimes also used by local South African troupes, e.g. as an informal name for the players of the Young Men’s Institute Amateur Christy’s, in the 1860s.





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

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[4]

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

Minstrels and Minstrel Shows in South Africa

The introduction of minstrel shows to the country

Deriving from the popular 19th century African-American tradition of minstrel shows, the form apparently first brought to South Africa by the Christy Minstrels during their 1848 tour, this style of performance has had an enormous impact on South African performance culture, as Bosman (1964), Coplan (1985) and Kruger (1999) show.

The 1860s and early 1870s are interesting in this respect. The names and terms such as The Christy Minstrels, the Corps of S.A. Minstrels or S.A. Minstrels (1860), African Minstrels (1862), Amateur Christy's, Nigger Burlesque, Grand Christy Entertainment, Minstrels, Comic Negro Song, Christy Concert frequently crop up in Cape Town theatres for example, and F.C.L. Bosman (1980) for example refers to the type of performances as "Christy's" or "Christy programmes", etc. They were particularly popular in the performances put on by the various garrisons in South Africa.

There are also troupes who do not use the name "Christy", but perform in the Christy style, e.g. the Ethiopian Serenaders, Amateur Coloured Troupe,

One of the most noticeable of the longer term effects of the exposure to the Christy's performances, is to be seen in the way they directly influenced the form, dress and style of the so called Coon Carnival in Cape Town, while such South African minstrel groups as the African Darkies, African Own Entertainers, and the Midnight Follies became popular, and in their turn influenced township performance through their use of coon songs and skits borrowed from recordings and sheet music from Britain and the USA.

An offshoot of this influence is also found in the mid-20th century "Follies" or "Minstrel Shows" (the Minstrels and Follies series during the 1970's) by people like Brian Brooke, Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke, and others.

Minstrel companies and their performances in South Africa

While it is often difficult to sort out which is which, for the specific names of troupes or companies kept changing, we provide the following tentative list of sub-entries on minstrel companies specifically mentioned by name in our sources. They are listed alphabetically:

The 86th Royal Downshire Minstrels

The 86th Royal Devonshire Minstrels, who - under the patronage of Captain Jackson of the 86th Royal Downshire Regiment, performed a Grand Christy Entertainment Show in the Oddfellows Hall on 19 April 1869 and another evening's entertainment on the 27th May, then reappeared with similar work (and billed as a "celebrated Troupe") in 1872.

1870: Performed The Mischievous Nigger (White) in the New Lyceum Theatre in July, 1870.

The African Minstrels

The African Minstrels was perhaps related to the S.A. Minstrels of 1860, consisting of eight men under the leadership of "Colour Sergeant" Heaven performed an interlude during a performance of The Miller and His Men and A Kiss in the Dark by officers and men from the 11th Regiment in the Barracks Theatre, Cape Town on Tuesday 2 December 1862.

Though it is tempting to assume otherwise in this case, the rank of "Colour Sergeant" does not mean that Heaven was from an African corps of some kind, it is in fact a specific rank of non-commissioned officer found in several armies[5]. It is likely though that his cast of Minstrels consisted of ensigns under his care.

The Amateur Coloured Troupe

The Amateur Coloured Troupe was the name given to a private (i.e. non regimental) concert company, performing under in the Minstrelsy[6] style popularized by the Christy Minstrels. They were active in Cape Town between 1869 and 1871. They seem to have emerged from the Y.M.I. Amateur Christy's, also performing in the Young Men's Institute and Club, and soon replacing it as the leading Christy's company. Their repertoire included typical Christy material, e.g. pantomimes, burlesques, also what were euphemistically called "Ethiopian burlesques" and more bluntly "nigger farces" at the time. These were usually part of a more conventional programme of songs, dances and virtually always included a dramatic entertainment of some kind. Their performances were often adopted to local conditions in the Cape.

Regular performers named in the early years were H. Burton, J. Lyal (or J. Lyall) and T. Grimier, with occasional mention of Mr Marchand, Mr Dix. Later E. Clifton and Mr Peverill became leading figures in the company. Others mentioned include Mr France, Mr Pomp, Mr Hamilton, Mr Stuart, Mr Emery, Mr Johnson, Miss Moore, Miss Peverill, Miss Lorenzo.

Their busiest year seems to have been 1869, doing at least 14 performances during the period May to November, and also included participation in the Saturday Evening Entertainments put on by the Young Men's Institute and Club Dramatic Company. In 1870 the latter fell away and they tended towards theatrical performances of plays, often two on an evening, alongside their singing. They did at least six performances between May and September. In this year they also performed three shows in the New Lyceum Theatre (or Oddfellows Hall), and even did one performance in Wynberg at the Government School Building. Among other attendees, they were distinguished by the attendance of President Brand of the Orange Free State[7] in July of 1869.

The performances in 1869 included The Challenge Dance, The Photographic Salon, Wha'rs Your Ticket, Who Stole the Chickens, Executive Lovers, The Dentist's Shop, The White Statue, Polka Maria, Othello (described as a "Ethiopian Burlesque in 3 Acts"). In 1870 they did Shylock, or De Old Clothes Merchant of Venice ("Grand Ethiopian Burlesque"), Rochester Knockings (or The Magic Leg?) , Caught by the Cuff (Huff), Full Private Perkins and The Rival Lovers (the latter two referred to as "nigger farces"). These performances all took place in Young Men's Institute and Club, while the following two special performances were done in July in the New Lyceum Theatre: The Virginian Mummy; and a week later the The Mischievous Nigger and The Area Belle (the evening's "Grand Entertainment" staged with the help of J. Ryan of the 86th Royal Downshire Minstrels). Another show in this venue occurred in September, with a benefit for E. Clifton, featuring The Two Polts and Mazeppa ("Grand Ethiopian Burlesque"). Only one performance by the Troupe is mentioned for 1871, a year in which very little theatre actually occurred in Cape Town, and the play performed was Joe Desmond's Revenge, and 1872 offered nothing.

The Amateur Dramatic and Christy Minstrels Company

This company apparently only did one recorded performance of "Negro melodies, farces, etc." in February 1867 in the bowling saloon of the Swiss Hotel in Plein Street Cape Town. It may have then become part of the Young Men's Dramatic Company, which did two performances in the same venue a few months later. Also known as the Y.M.I. Christy's or the Amateur Christy's

The Carolina Minstrels

The Carolina Minstrels was a troupe of professional performers apparently assembled, trained and led by Mr Gough. They were active between 1857 and 1858.

In 1858 they participated in a benefit for Mr Gough put on by J.E.H. English in his New Music Hall in Buitekant Street, Cape Town on 10 August. Besides their own minstrel performance, the entertainment included the plays The Hard Struggle (Marston) and The Bengal Tiger (Dance), as well as minstrel numbers (e.g. Paddy's Wedding, Jim Crow's Dance etc.)

The Christy Minstrels

According to F.C.L. Bosman (1980: p. 140) a company by this name, billing themselves as the "original" Christy Minstrels (founded in 1842), came to South Africa in 1862 as part of a tour of the colonies (their next stop was to be Australia). This followed on a triumphant tour of the USA and five tours of England and Europe (where their patrons had apparently included Queen Victoria).

Actually, the particular name first occurs in Sefton Parry's 1862 Cape Town season, in connection with a performance of the farce Whitebait at Greenwich (Morton) on 10 May in the Theatre Royal. They are announced as appearing "For the first time" in the "Great Burlesque of Uncle Snow's Music Lesson", further accompanied by "Ten Gymnastic Acts", negro songs, and "the real Virginia Breakdown"[8]. However, this may have been a similarly named (local?) troupe of minstrels, rather than the famous company from the USA.

Appearances by the "original" troupe seem to have begun with performances at the Theatre Royal) (20-31 August), thereafter shows in the Circus, the Commercial Exchange and the Cape Town vicinity (e.g. Simonstown and Stellenbosch) till 19 September). They returned to Cape Town and vicinity (21 October-20 November) for more performances, this time including also places such as Paarl and Worcester. They also visited Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown between there Cape Town engagements.

The company consisted of seven performers, Joe Brown, Mr Melvyn, Mr Steele, Mr Rainford, Mr Norton, Mr Nish and Mr Stewart.

Their musical programme not only consisted of so-called "nigger songs", but also included English ballads, duets and choruses. The dramatic fare included various burlesques and short plays, in which messrs Brown and Norton were apparently "delineators of nigger characters". The repertoire thus included burlesques of works such as La Somnambula (Moncrieff, frequently done by the company), Il Trovatore (Verdi) and The Flying Dutchman (Fitzball), as well as a number of comic sketches, such as The Crow Family, The Nerves, Good News from Home and even an act from the musical comedy Cinderella Ball, or Lucy at the Ball.

The Ethiopian Serenaders

This was a band founded in Cape Town in 1858 by a Mr Gough, a semi-professional performer working with Sefton Parry at the time. Other members mentioned over time include W. Dansie, ... They seem to have toured with their shows in this time.

Their first performance took place on 18 January, 1858, as part of an evening which included performances of How to Die for Love! (Kotzebue), Mammon & Gammon (Morton) and a performance of a highland fling by Mr Gough.

On Christmas 1860, a company called the Ethiopean Serenaders (sic) apparently performed some of the favourite songs and dances as performed by Christy's Minstrels in the Garrison Theatre of either Grahamstown or Keiskama Hoek, as part of an evening of entertainment by the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot, who performed "a grand Balletical (sic) Introduction" entitled The Rivals and "an Historical, Melodramatical, Balletical, Burlesque, Operatical Pantomime, in two acts, by a member of the Dramatic Club, 2nd Batt. 10th Regiment." The "Ethiopean Serenaders" is likely to have been Mr Gough's troupe.

"The performance of May 27, 1861, was repeated on the June 3, with Private W. Dansie of the Ethiopian Serenaders, singing "Villikens and his Dinah" which was loudly encored. The recitation of "Virginia," also, was a great improvement upon that of the previous week. (To listen to "Villikens and his Dinah" click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHjeDyv6Tzo )

(See the entry on the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot for contemporaneous commentary on the performance.)

The Phoenix Club

Briefly active in Cape Town in 1868, the club was possibly founded in imitation of the Y.M.I. Amateur Christy's.

The S.A. Minstrels or the Corps of S.A. Minstrels

This name is used by F.C.L. Bosman (1980) though without explanation, though it was most probably made up of members of the local garrison, active in Cape Town circa 1860. Possibly related to the troupe referred to as the African Minstrels.

Bosman lists a Railway Overture performed by the Corps of S.A. Minstrels in the Cabinet Theatre, Cape Town, on 1 October, 1860, along with performances of Two Heads are Better than One (Horne) and The Man of Many Friends (Coyne) by the Cape Town Dramatic Club.

They again performed on 9 October, this time in the Theatre Royal, Cape Town, again with the C.T.D.C.'s Two Heads are Better than One (Horne), The Man of Many Friends (Coyne) as well as interlude of songs such as Lord Lovell etc. by a "lady from London". This performance took place under the patronage of the Governor of the Cape.

The Virginia Jubilee Singers and Orpheus McAdoo

An influential jubilee and minstrelsy group who visited South Africa in the 1890s under leadership of impresario Orpheus McAdoo. The group was also known as the Virginia Concert Company, the Virginia Jubilee Concert Company, McAdoo's Vaudeville Company or even simply as The Jubilee Singers. Their visits are believed to have had a substantial influence on the style of the Cape Coon Carnival

See the Virginia Jubilee Singers

The Young Men’s Institute Amateur Christy’s

The Young Men's Institute and Club Dramatic Company (or Y.M.I. Amateur Christy's) performed in the Young Men's Institute and Club (or sometimes called the Y.M.I. Institute and Club). During the heyday of the minstrelsy period in South Africa (circa 1860-1870), the YMI club hosted a very active amateur dramatic society which was informally known as the Amateur Christy's or Young Men’s Institute Amateur Christy’s. It was one of three Christy's companies active in the city at the time. They initially performed in the Mutual Hall, but when the Cape Town Institute and Club Limited opened their own new building in Burg Street on 15 July, 1868, they shifted their activities and used that as their normal venue.

Among the people involved appears to have been a Mr Toogood, possibly one of the leading figures, E. Clifton, Mr Trevenen, Mr Vincent and Mr Charlton.

Their performances consisted of minstrelsy shows and so-called Ethiopian burlesques or Negro farces. Among the presentations mentioned were:

The "negro farces" included The Returned Volunteer from Abessynia; The Young Scamp (White) and The United States Mail.

In November 1868 they did The Nervous Cures and The United States Mail as a benefit for the Oddfellows Library and Reading Room.

In 1869 they were active once more, a highlight being their involvement in the great Juvenile Fancy Fair and Grand Fête organized in the Cape Gardens on 25 February by the Cape Town Institute and Club in support of the victims of the great fires in Uitenhage and Knysna.



F.C.L. Bosman, 1980. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel II, 1856-1916. Pretoria: J.L. van Schaik: pp. 68, 112-3, 132, 134, 139-141, 161-163, 167, 255, 266, 274, 278-280, 291

Bosman (1964),

Coplan (1985) and

Kruger (1999)

(Coplan??p 124)

Erlmann, 1991*

Charles White. 1900(?). The Darkey Drama: A Collection of Approved Ethiopian Farces, Interludes, Scenes, Etc. Part Eight

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

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


The Fugard Theatre Newsletter (newsletter@thefugard.com), Thursday 9 October 2014.

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