OCU actors relive the Omaha Race Riot with 'The Minstrel Show' 

"The Minstrel Show, or The Lynching of William Brown" retells the true story of the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, where 5,000 whites surrounded the Douglas County Courthouse, enraged by the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man named William Brown.

The mob overran police lines and nearly succeeded in hanging the town's reformist mayor. After setting fire to the building, Brown was eventually handed over to the rioters who hanged, shot and burned him. It is possible that Brown, who suffered from rheumatism and was not positively identified by the victim, never actually committed any crime.

In the play, the events of that night are recounted by two fictional traveling minstrels who were also in the Douglas County jail the night of the lynching. The minstrels for Thursday-Saturday's Oklahoma City University performance are played by Brandon Grayson, a university acting major, and Dexter Bishop, a dance major. Through comedy, music and drama, the two performers re-enact the tragic event, while providing audiences a glimpse at the evolution of the black actor in America.

"The Minstrel Show" was written by Max Sparber, who learned of the riot and lynching after moving to Omaha in 1996. It was produced for the first time in 1998 in the rotunda of the Douglas County Courthouse, the site of the actual lynching. This sparked some controversy, including a boycott by a state senator who objected specifically to the use of blackface by the minstrels that narrate the play.

OCU's production of "The Minstrel Show" is directed by Tinasha Williams, a former Miss Black Oklahoma and Miss Black OCU, who is pursuing her master's of liberal arts. She discovered the play while researching the minstrel tradition in the early 1900s.

Williams said the play serves as two important history lessons: The first focuses on minstrels and how blacks weren't allowed to perform onstage as themselves.

"They had to wear blackface that was blacker than their faces. It served to degrade them and strip them of any praise or credit for their performances," she said. "We did a lot of history lessons on buffoonery and being able to degrade yourself in a humorous way. Black performers were very good at what they did back in the day, although it was not the most honorable work."

Even though the minstrel tradition is a thing of the past, Williams still sees echoes of it in the black community.

"There is still a lot behavior that goes on today "? hiding behind a smiley face, hiding behind laughter "? when there are really serious issues that need to be faced and dealt with," she said.

The second history lesson, Williams said, is the story of the lynching itself. She worked with her actors, making sure that they were educated on the time and fully understood an America where racial tension and lynching were a reality.

"A lot of people, especially blacks today, don't know a lot about black history," she said. "The torch has been lost in the generations. Knowing more about this history will help with people's identities. Knowing where they came from and what has been overcome, the issues they face today won't seem that bad." 

"?Eric Webb

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