The Bride Wielded a Razor: Images of Women on the Blackface Stage of James McIntyre and Thomas Heath


James McIntyre and Thomas Heath’s theatrical partnership began during the height of blackface minstrelsy, ran through the glory days of Tony Pastor’s variety theater, and survived into the roaring 1920s environment of vaudeville and burlesque, requiring the duo to adapt to changing theatrical conventions. Although their signature blackface characters, Henry and Alexander, remained the chief attraction of their act, McIntyre and Heath developed spectacular framing devices by incorporating supporting players and large female choruses. The changing images of femininity in the work of McIntyre and Heath—from the grotesque blackface “gal” of an early sketch to the mechanized white sex object of their Ham Tree Girls chorus—create a link between the oldest blackface traditions and the commodification of race and sexuality in the twentieth century. Through both blackface stereotypes and idealized white dancing choruses, white, male theatrical artists projected an illusion of knowledge, even intimacy, with the bodies of people—African Americans and white women—who held inferior social positions. McIntyre and Heath used this process to assert and confirm their performative authority, which translated into decades of ticket sales. This essay describes the core elements of the Henry/Alexander stage relationship, then explores the addition of feminine elements to the act, and the reflections that gender make upon the central racial impersonations.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.