A fugitive slave pursued by a vicious bounty hunter provides the fictional framework for novelist and music writer Piazza (Devil Sent the Rain, 2011, etc.) to ponder the contradictions of blackface minstrelsy.
Fleeing the bitter knowledge that the man who owns him is his father, Joseph heads north to Philadelphia, acquiring the name Henry Sims en route. He’s a brilliant banjo player and extraordinary dancer, so when James Douglass sees him performing on the street, he knows Henry is the man to revive the flagging fortunes of his minstrelsy troupe, the Virginia Harmonists. It’s illegal for a Negro to appear onstage with white performers, but light-skinned Henry audaciously suggests he can hide his race by applying burnt cork as they do. James agrees; having escaped drudgery on a Pennsylvania farm to find paradoxical freedom in “blacking up,” he feels a surprising kinship with this proud, assertive artist who doesn’t bother to disguise his opinion that he’s as good as any white man. Passing off their new member as Mexican, the Virginia Harmonists gain renewed popularity. Unfortunately, their reputation as “the best nigger show in town” attracts the attention of Tull Burton, dispatched by Joseph’s owner/father to recapture him. Several sickeningly brutal scenes have already made it clear that Tull is a dangerous sadist, and the tension is nearly unbearable as he stalks Henry. But Piazza’s elegantly written narrative also has time for James’ poetic musings on the masks all performers wear, as well as his uneasy feelings about finding joy in an act grounded in the culture of an enslaved people. The rest of the Harmonists are also fully fleshed characters, as is the troupe’s seamstress, Rose, whose final appearance quietly makes the point that women too are painfully confined in antebellum America. The closing pages offer no neat resolution for anyone, only haunting reminders of life’s uncertainties and complexities.
A thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture—as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath.