When I think of a clown, I, like you, might imagine a tall man in a curly wig and suspenders, his face painted, a bright, red plastic nose marking his station. When you squeeze it, it honks. When I think of a Black clown, the image conjured is altogether different. He is always-smiling, the whites of his eyes and teeth bleeding beyond their natural borders. His clothes are dirty and tattered, rustic as if to suggest some rural origin. His skin, of course, is black, but eerily so, as if a veneer has been applied to set it in place, as if you might wipe him all away with the swipe of a hand.
When I think of a Black clown, I think also of Bert Williams and George Walker, who took the minstrel circuit by storm when they first arrived on the scene as a duo in the 1890s. The popular performance style had long been dominated by white entertainers in blackface, but Williams and Walker, already good and Black, initially performed in the minstrel tradition without blackening their skin. They billed themselves as “Two Real Coons,” capitalizing on the draw of their authentic Black selves. Why go see white people play at Blackness when you can see real Black people playing at white people playing at Blackness!
Despite its vulgarity, what Williams and Walker were doing with minstrel form was radical. They were subverting the white performative imagination, in which the Black performer is only seen to the extent that they are capable of playing out the desires and delusions of a white audience, even as they were confined within it. If white audiences wanted the “Two Real Coons” (and they really did!) that meant they were going to get Williams and Walker, too. So they had no choice but to contend with their real bodies, their real Blackness.
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between Williams and Walker and Tambo and Bones, the eponymous clowns at the center of Dave Harris’ New York City playwriting debut. Early in the play, they realize – to their utter dismay – that they, too, are Black minstrels, though, unlike Williams and Walker, it’s not a choice they seem to have made for themselves. It’s not even a choice made fully by the playwright Harris, who is as inextricably bound by this fraught legacy as the subjects he creates.
In his book A Little Devil in America, cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib argues that, “the echoes of minstrelsy impacted the landscape of American entertainment well after Black minstrels were dead and gone… Blame the country they danced upon and the people who could not stop watching.” Surely, Harris, a Black theater artist, is acutely aware of those people watching – of a white audience’s expectations of his Black voice, of the implications of his employment of Black performers to embody what white people expect of Black performers. How could he not be?
There is a toll, of course. On Harris, the figure of which Tambo and Bones literally rip apart on stage once they get hip to his intention to exploit them for his own capitalist gain. On us, the spectators, who grapple with the varying degrees of our complicity in their exploitation. And, finally, and most terribly, on Tambo and Bones and the actors who portray them, W. Tré Davis and Tyler Fauntleroy. They cannot hide under the house’s dim lights. They are afforded no rest. They must dance the fine line between their performed selves and their performer selves centerstage for all of us to see. And, boy, do they dance. (And rap and act and sometimes sing!)
What a feat of performative prowess. Their verbal virtuosity, their comedic flair. Every night, up and down the aisles, spinning and twirling, shucking and jiving. Talk about endurance! Talk about breath control! In Part Two, when we are transported to a full-blown early-aughts style rap concert, I was right there with them, singing along, bobbing my head, doing “the Bones” from my seat, ready for the ride as long as it was those two driving the train. Fitting that it is two clowns who take us on this journey, giving us, or at least some of us, the permission to laugh, to revel in the spectacle of their being without fully confronting the consequences of our pleasure. They are not real people, after all, they are only playing at themselves, playing at their Blackness, and we are all safely in on the joke.
Reflecting on his experience in the role of Tambo, Davis remarks, “I actually am really tired. Of having to negotiate…having white people have an opinion about my work when they don’t understand me, when they don’t know where I’m coming from. Like, how can you tell me something ain’t funny, when you don’t get the joke?” Actor Fauntleroy echoes his sentiments, adding, “there’s moments as Black artists and Black people in this country [when] that fatigue sets in… You wonder, dang, when is it gonna be enough? When are we gonna have enough?… When are we gonna finally be seen as real people? Why do I gotta do all this?”
I was in awe of how effortless Davis and Fauntleroy made “all this” look – “how easy it is to switch one’s Black self into all of the things America imagines but doesn’t want” – And only somewhere faraway in the back of my head did I remember the image of the Black clown, perpetually smiling, perpetually dancing for the delight of a white audience. Only somewhere faraway in the back of my head did I think of Bert Williams, down on his luck and at the end of career, collapsing onstage in the middle of what would be his final performance, the audience still laughing as they carried him away.
There is a toll, of course.
Photo by Marc J. Franklin