In The Life Fantastic, Pietro rebels against a common practice: applying “blackface” in order to appear onstage in vaudeville theaters. Smearing burnt cork on one’s face and hands was meant to obscure the skin color of the actor underneath the makeup. It was a carryover from the days of black minstrel shows. For Pietro and many other black performers, it was demeaning. And yet, African American actors, singers, dancers, and comedians appearing in blackface opened the door for black performers who would eventually go on stage without cork.
Songs from this era, especially those of Stephen Foster, were favorites on the vaudeville stage. Yet they’re seldom sung today because of his lyrics, which reflect a time of racial intolerance. A number of historians share their feelings about Stephen Foster’s lyrics.
“It’s part of black history and it’s part of American history and you can’t change history. It’s good to reflect on it. I think it’s more important to study history as it is, lest we ever repeat ourselves.” –Nancy Griffith, musician
Learn more: (American Experience on PBS, “Blackface Minstrelsy”)