Notes on Playing Slaves: James Ijames and the Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy

Close-up photograph of playwright James Ijames wearing a yellow beanie and black plastic-framed glasses.
Photograph of James Ijames from

Beyond the Page presents

Chat in the Stacks: A Conversation with Temple Alum and Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright James Ijames

All programs are free and open to all, and registration is encouraged.

PLEASE NOTE THIS CHANGE IN FORMAT: This program was prerecorded and available to view here:

James Ijames (rhymes with “Grimes”), the Philadelphia-based playwright and Temple alum whose irreverent take on Shakespeare, Fat Ham, won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, does not want to risk being misunderstood. In the opening pages of his earlier play Kill Move Paradise (2019), about four black men stuck in an unending afterlife, Ijames provides a nuanced key to performing his carefully crafted dialogue and, sometimes, his silences:

Forward slash indicates overlapping dialogue. Text marked with a strikethrough should be meant, felt and tonally inform the line but should not be spoken. Don't leave space say they[sic] line as though the word wasn't there but allow the word, inside of that moment, to color it's[sic] delivery. Small words, or words written in a small typeface, are the only words the character can find but are not the right words. Spoken in a small way and almost to themselves. Almost like a stifled weeping sometimes. Not a whisper. More like you're trying to speak through tears. Boldfaced words should be spoken as a whisper. Sotto Voce. Underlined words are non-voiced sounds. Breathing. Light. Please honor the extended vowels as scripted. Please do not shorten them. If they feel weird, GOOD!
Performance notes taken from the screenplay of Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames.

In The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington (published in 2018), Ijames provides no such detailed notes, but his opening pronouncements speak to another concern of his: the representation of enslaved people onstage. The play is an extended nightmarish dream sequence taking place on Christmas Eve in the year 1800. The elderly Martha Washington, close to death and looked after only by her slaves who know that they will be freed after her demise, is confronted with the possibility both that her human property might be just as deserving of freedom as she is, and that they might be planning to murder her. After a lengthier note explaining how the laughter of slaves should be portrayed (“It’s more like showing one’s teeth. Especially in the case of the slaves. Their laughter is hostile. Loud! Laughter is a weapon”), Ijames lays out the argument of the play very simply in a brief “Notes on Playing Slaves”:

“Slaves in the Antebellum American south were whole, complicated and complex people. Just. Like. You. Remember this. Thanks!”

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial is a play that aims to show the humanity and complexity of an historical people for whom those qualities were denied.

It might therefore be surprising that the shadow of blackface minstrelsy hangs over this play, purposefully and self-consciously, challenging the audience and performers to overcome the specter of received stereotypes. Blackface minstrelsy was a form of popular entertainment that emerged around the 1820s in the United States and, by the 1840s, had developed into a full-blown mode of performance that remained the country’s most popular musical genre for decades to come. And far from being an American peculiarity, minstrelsy was also the country’s first popular music export, achieving great popularity in countries from England to South Africa to Australia.

Although white audiences at the time might have believed blackface minstrelsy to have been an “authentic” style of music and dance created by people of African descent (who at the time mainly would have been enslaved peoples), blackface was created by white performers. Darkening their faces and hands with burnt cork (a process known as “blacking up”) and imitating how they believed Black people spoke, sang, and danced, blackface performers created characters based on negative racial stereotypes, such as the lazy and disheveled Jim Crow, the dandyish buffoon Zip Coon, or widely grinning Mammy. Popular songwriters like Stephen Foster wrote minstrel songs that became sheet music bestsellers, many of them songs that are still well known today such as “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Oh! Susannah.” Eventually, and particularly after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, many Black freed persons did become minstrel performers, as the demand for such performance along with social barriers steeped in racism meant that it was one of the only available career paths for Black musicians.

Black and white illustrated sheet music from the mid-19th century, reading "The Crow Quadrilles" at the top of the page, "arranged for the piano forte by Robert Ashley, Esq." at the bottom of the page. The illustrations feature various caricatured images of African-American stereotypes, including Black man holding a banjo with tattered clothes and the dandified figure of Zip Coon.
This sheet music cover art from the 1840s is one of many examples of stereotypical and racist imagery held in the Blockson Collection’s Stereotypical Images Teaching Collection. The character of Zip Coon can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the page, a dandified character prone to malapropisms and a highfalutin accent considered ridiculous to one of his race and social class. To see this sheet music, which includes a piano transcription of “Zip Coon,” visit Temple Digital Collections. For more information about the purpose and pedagogical goals of the Stereotypical Images Teaching Collection, click here.

Although other forms of entertainment competed with blackface minstrel shows by the turn of the twentieth century, blackface continued to appear in mainstream entertainment well into the classical era of Hollywood, in films like The Jazz Singer (1927), Swing Time (1936), Babes on Broadway (1941), Holiday Inn (1942), and numerous iterations of Othello. Although the practice of “blacking up,” as well as the similar practices of “yellowface” and “redface,” have long been decried as racist, and although activists have continued to urge filmmakers instead to hire actors of color to portray characters of their own racial background, even into the 21st century we are still seeing the legacy of blackface minstrelsy play out time and again in popular entertainment.

The specter of minstrelsy haunts the early pages of Kill Move Paradise, when the character Isa, who is trying to cope with the isolation and boredom of the afterlife while surrounded by mysterious spectators—us, the audience—decides he will put on a show:

(Silence. Isa looks at us for a while. At first he tries to entertain us.)


I’ll dance. I’ll sing.

                        (tune of turkey in the straw)

Being black men just ain’t what it used to be.

Ain’t what it used to be.

Ain’t what it used to be.

Being black men just ain’t what it used to be.

Not many years to go.

                        (He fails.)

Better known as the iconic “ice cream truck song,” “Turkey in the Straw” shares its tune with the minstrel song named for the aforementioned “Zip Coon,” making Isa’s performance a self-consciously uncomfortable minstrel show for an audience paying to watch dead black men suffer.

In The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, however, the blackface minstrelsy reference is both more and less overt, appearing in a stage direction and left up to the skill of the performers to interpret for the audience. After naming blackface minstrelsy explicitly and explaining its origins to the reader and performers, Ijames explains that what follows “should feel like the real thing,” with the “full broadness of vaudeville but be completely steeped in the truth.” Using the language of minstrelsy, which wouldn’t emerge into the American consciousness for at least another 20 years after the events of the play, the house slaves Davy and Sucky Boy proceed to embody stereotypes both familiar and terrifying to Martha, or as Ijames writes in the stage direction: “Imagine if the stereotypes you created suddenly became hyper-real and attacked you? That’s what’s going down here.” In her fever dream, Martha turns her slaves into monstrous caricatures of her racist fears, but Ijames uses this legacy of American popular music history for another reason: minstrelsy gives these same characters the power to terrify their abuser, turning her power over them upside down until finally she declares, “I do believe you darkies are trying to kill me.” Whether she’s right or this is all a product of her own anachronistic white guilt is up to the audience to decide.

If you want to learn more about James Ijames’s fascinating work, we hope you will join us on Thursday, February 23 for our next “Chat in the Stacks!”

Check out works by James Ijames at Temple University Libraries:

Ijames, James. Kill Move Paradise. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service, 2019.

———. Moon Man Walk. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2018.

———. The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2018.

———. White. New York, NY: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2018.

Suggested reading:

Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, Brooks McNamara, and Mel Watkins, eds. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England [for] Wesleyan University Press, 1996.

Brooks, Tim. The Blackface Minstrel Show in Mass Media: 20th Century Performances on Radio, Records, Film and Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2020.

Johnson, Stephen Burge, ed. Burnt Cork: Traditions and Legacies of Blackface Minstrelsy. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. 20th-anniversary ed. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Nowatzki, Robert. Representing African Americans in Transatlantic Abolitionism and Blackface Minstrelsy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010.

Smith, Christopher J. The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

Thelwell, Chinua. Exporting Jim Crow : Blackface Minstrelsy in South Africa and Beyond. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020.

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