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From caricature to collins: The shifting performance of blackness in entertainment and America

By Kayla Kranen

How does Collins' representation of blackness in RENT reconstruct the collective American representation of blackness?

Abstract

Blackness has a long a tumultuous history in America, and in America's entertainment. Beginning with minstrel shows in the mid 1800's, blackness was a caricature. Though blackness shifted through the years, the prevailing aspects of the original minstrel caricature became stereotypes, defining black people as dim-witted, lazy, and always happy because of their blackness. This essay discusses how Tom Collins in Jonathan Larson's RENT flies in the face of these stereotypes and reconstructs blackness both in American entertainment and the overarching American consciousness. Collins' character in RENT acts as a platform for the uncomfortable conversation of racial prejudice and stereotypes in its audience members and broader society. In turn, this conversation performs America, demonstrating to a broader and broader audience what black characters, and blackness as a whole, can become.

Essay

This essay seeks to establish Tom Collins from Jonathan Larson's "RENT" as a foundational reconstruction of American blackness by analyzing lyrics, staging, and acting in Stagedoor Manor's production of "RENT," and comparing them to academic descriptions of historical minstrel shows. Blackness in America has long been performed through a shallow and overtly racist lens, beginning with minstrel shows but including plays, popular television, and musicals. The constructions of blackness that came from these shows depicted blacks as dim-witted, lazy, and always happy. Collins stands against these prior constructions of blackness in America, and demonstrates a new complexity vital to the construction of blackness that is incorporated in the overall performance of America.

Although RENT may seem out of touch with today’s society, and some of its facets are, it is in fact crucial in terms of today’s concern over racial tensions. Simultaneously, it seeks to counter the foundational American stereotypes of blackness that led to these tensions in the first place. The musical creates a relatable platform from which people can engage in the uncomfortable conversation of racial prejudice, and in doing so, performs America.

Minstrel show performers in blackface (Credit: BBC)

Since its inception, blackness has been an ever-shifting construction in American entertainment. As blackness “evolved with the consolidation of racial slavery”, it was only natural that the performance of American blackness also evolved from the effects of slavery (Omi/Winant). Beginning with minstrel shows, the “first uniquely American entertainment form,” blacks were not even allowed to play themselves in entertainment; instead, they were represented by white actors in blackface who spoke in ‘African’ accents. In order to satisfy white society’s voracious curiosity about “blackness,” these actors performed caricatures of blackness (Grosvenor). After the Civil War, minstrel shows shifted, making possible the “first late-scale entrance into American show business” for blacks, yet little actually changed (Grosvenor). Though blacks played themselves, they were still forced to play the shallow, racist caricatures created by whites. These formed the representational basis of blackness from which stereotypes were drawn, and continue to be drawn to this day. Though blackness was constantly reconstructing itself in American entertainment, the stereotypes created by the first caricatures remained pervasive, inherent in the lack of depth in black characters in film, plays, and musicals, until Tom Collins in “RENT.”

"Dim-Witted"

Established early on as a college professor, it is clear that Tom Collins is not dim-witted; however, he embodies the counter to this stereotype through not just how he is described, but in how he speaks and acts. In his second appearance to the audience, in the song “You Okay Honey?,” Collins speaks how muggers had “purloined his coat,” the elevated language of which demonstrating his powerful intellect (Larson). Collins language continues throughout the show, as he speaks of being “thwarted by a metaphysics puzzle” and calls Angel “a sensitive aesthete” in the song “Santa Fe,” and describes Angel as his “benefactor on this Christmas Day” in the song “Today 4 U” (Larson). The way Collins utilizes language is particularly important in dismantling the 'African' speech pattern of the previous caricature of blackness. Collins not only speaks clearly in English, but demonstrates an intellectual understanding of the language that forces a reconstruction of the way black people speak. Collins reconstruction of blackness to include intelligence rather than dim-wittedness relies not only on his words, but also his actions. In the song “La Vie Boheme,” Angel describes how Collins reprogrammed the M.I.T. “virtual reality equipment to self-destruct as it broadcast the words: Actual reality - Act up - Fight AIDS,” demonstrating once again his intelligence in contrast to the caricatures before him. Through embodied words and actions, Collins establishes himself as an intelligent black man, which challenges the preconceived ideas of what black characters could be.

Collins congratulates himself on his reprogramming of the M.I.T. virtual reality equipment (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)
"Lazy"

As one of the few people with a job in the show, Collins is not lazy. Even more visceral in demonstrating this however, is Collins’ dream: to open a restaurant in Santa Fe. Unlike other characters in the show, Collins demonstrates not only a willingness to work hard, but a dream to continue working. In the song “Santa Fe,” Collins describes his dream life to Angel: “devoting” himself to “labors [that] reap financial gains” and no longer teaching “computer age philosophy” (Larson). In making Collins’ dream about working, Larson places Collins as far as possible from the caricature stereotype of laziness, yet also places him far from the conceptual reality of slavery: that blacks are happy to work because they know nothing else. Collins wants to move and work in Santa Fe not because he loves work as a whole, but because in his current job, his “misery pays no salary” (Larson). Through his dream life in Santa Fe, Collins reconstructs blackness in entertainment far from both previous caricature stereotypes, and the overpowering reality of slavery.

Collins emotes his dream during the song "Santa Fe" (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)
"Always Happy"

While Collins has his happy moments, his not naive, nor constantly happy; he is far from a comedic character. Facing muggers, corrupt police, and the loss of a loved one, Collins experiences anger, fear, and grief. Able to feel negative emotions, Collins constructs a kind of complexity of feeling present in blackness that was not there before; these emotions are humanizing, allowing blackness to be represented as human, rather than a caricature. After Collins is mugged, he breaks the always happy stereotype by demonstrating his anger, yelling after the muggers who stole his coat: “well you missed a sleeve” (Larson). As he yells, Collins stands tall and waves the coat sleeve to demonstrate his anger. This anger adds the first layer to Collins as a person, as it shows in one of his first interactions with the audience. Later in the show, as police intimidate people on the street, singing, “I’m dreaming of a white, right, Christmas,” Collins visibly cowers. Not only does this moment demonstrate Collins’ depth as a character, but also offers a critique of American policing and police brutality as the two cops bang their billy clubs threateningly against trash can lids. While Collins’ anger and fear lend to the depth of his character that fights the stereotype, it is his embodied grief, in parallel with his happiness, that establishes him as the new construction of blackness in entertainment. Throughout the show, Collins’ spot of brightness is his lover, Angel. With Angel, a burden is lifted, and he allows himself to be happy. As the two men fall in love in the song “I’ll Cover You,” Collins can be seen constantly smiling and dancing along with Angel’s antics. In stark contrast to this effervescent happiness is the gripping grief Collins experiences when Angel passes away. In the song “I’ll Cover You (Reprise),” Collins eulogizes Angel, singing the song they once sang together, in happiness, by himself, in grief. Collins performs the song almost as if he is wailing, before falling to his knees and being unable to go on. Collins eulogy in “I’ll Cover You Reprise” is one of the most deeply emotional points of the show. For it to be performed by a black man emphasizes Collins’ complexity of character and emotional importance, allowing Collins to construct a transcendent, humanized version of the black caricature.

Collins grasps his chest as he wails the high notes of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)

Established as a hardworking, intellectual, emotional character, Collins bucks off the caricature stereotypes of minstrel shows to create a new representation of blackness in American entertainment. His hard work empowering him, his intelligence elevating him, and his emotions humanizing him, Collins provides a new benchmark for blackness not just in entertainment, but in the overarching conceptual construction of blackness in America. Even in today’s society, 25 years later, where new images of politicians in blackface come up frequently, RENT—Tom Collins in particular—serves as a vehicle to bring discourse of what blackness can be into the American consciousness. This discourse, vital to the continuation of diversity in America, produces the ultimate meaning of blackness through its language (Hall). It is important to note that the reconstruction of blackness occurs not through Collins himself, but the discourse he motivates; as Stuart Hall posits, creating a positive stereotype is not enough to overcome a negative one (Hall). Through Collins, Larson did not completely reconstruct blackness. Instead, he began discourse of the role of blackness, and more broadly race, in musicals that paved the way for the creation of musicals such as The Color Purple, and the colorful casting of incredibly popular shows such as Hamilton and Hadestown. As blackness in musicals becomes more mainstream, the discourse surrounding it continues to grow, and blackness continues to be reconstructed.

Collins collapses to his knees at the culmination of "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" (Credit: Stagedoor Manor)

Ultimately, Collins position in the show allows his audience to engage in the uncomfortable conversation of confronting their own prejudice, and that of the those around them. Though the original construction of blackness and race in America flattened a complex topic into inadequate stereotypes that lasted many years, Collins’ embodied reconstruction of blackness as one of complexity, depth, and balance, serves to guide the discourse of blackness inside the overarching performance of America, even for years to come.

Bibliography

“Ch1: Representation, Meaning, & Language.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, by Stuart Hall, Sage, 2013, pp. 1–47.

Grosvenor, Edwin S. “Blackface: The Sad History of Minstrel Shows.” American Heritage, 2019, www.americanheritage.com/blackface-sad-history-minstrel-shows.

Larson, Jonathan. “RENT.” 1994, New York, New York Theater Workshop.

“Racial Formation.” Racial Formation in the United States, by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Routledge, 2015, pp. 13–14.

Reflection