(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 1/29.)
If the inhibiting conventions against which African-Americans struggled in the theater, by far the most hated — and till midcentury the most widespread — was blackface. Coming into widespread use with the earliest minstrel shows in the 1830s, it flowed through vaudeville, musical theater, "legit" plays, and film, persisting here until the mid-1950s and even longer in Britain, where The Black & White Minstrel Show was seen weekly on the BBC till 1978.
Blacks and whites both wore blackface during its hegemony in vaudeville, though the former frequently derided and resented it. A recently rediscovered silent film with an all-black cast shows its star, the immortal Bert Williams, wearing his characteristic stage blackface makeup, presumably as a sort of trademark; the others all wear their own faces.
As this suggests, blackface's simple stereotyping concealed a complex mechanism. For Williams, in that film's context, it was equivalent to the elaborate stylized makeup that, in Kabuki or Beijing Opera, indicates the presence of a star. In other situations, it was a formal mask beneath which otherwise impermissible messages, social or psychological, could be smuggled onto the stage. Eddie Cantor once, in a Ziegfeld Follies sketch, played Williams' son, with both men in blackface. In the 1930 film version of Cantor's 1928 Broadway hit, Whoopee (one of the few film productions with which Ziegfeld himself was actively involved), you can see Cantor, disguised in blackface as a "singing cook," compelled by a bigoted sheriff to prove his bona fides by singing and dancing at gunpoint. The notion is rather lost sight of as the number goes on — the sheriff, like everyone else in the scene, is enjoying himself so much he forgets to keep the gun pointed — but the fact remains that someone involved thought the image both germane and viable for a frivolous musical entertainment that featured a white star capering in blackface.