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Theatre History Podcast #55

Examining the Controversial History of the “Mummers Wench” with Dr. Christian DuComb



We know that the history of theatre and performance contains plenty of insensitive, even offensive, tropes and stereotypes. We also tend to think of ourselves as having left those stereotypes in the past, where they belong. However, as this week’s guest reveals, our popular culture still contains plenty of uncomfortable reminders of those types, and they’re often woven into the fabric of beloved cultural institutions in a way that forces us to come to terms with them, rather than simply pretend that they have nothing to do with us.

Dr. Christian DuComb, author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia, joins us to talk about how these complicated issues appear in the figure of the “mummers wench,” a fixture of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade for decades. The “wench” hearkens back to the nineteenth century and the days of the minstrel show, serving as yet another reminder that what we think is long-past is often very much still present.

mummer in costume
A mummers wench in the 1924 parade.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


  • Read Christian’s entry on mummers in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.
  • Learn more about Christian’s book Haunted City at its page at the University of Michigan Press.
  • Find additional information on the Mummers Parade at its official website.
mummers parade
A "wench brigade" in the Mummers Parade, 2014. Photo by Donald D. Groff, courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

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Michael Lueger: The Theatre History Podcast is supported by HowlRound, a knowledge commons by and for the theatre community. It's available on iTunes and howlround.com.

Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. We live in a time when most of us are increasingly aware of and sensitive to issues pertaining to race. And it's tempting to think that we've drawn a clear dividing line between the values of our era and the stereotypes of performance traditions from the past. However, as today's guest reveals, the legacy of phenomena, such as blackface performance and the minstrel show still lingers in our culture in surprising and disturbing ways.

Dr. Christian DuComb joins us for this episode to talk about the Philadelphia Mummers parade, and the persistence of a figure known as the “mummers wench.” Christian is an assistant professor of theatre at Colgate University and the author of Haunted City: Three Centuries of Racial Impersonation in Philadelphia, as well as the essay “The Wenches of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade: A Performance Genealogy”, which you can find in the book Performing Utopia.

Christian, thank you so much for joining us.

Christian DuComb: Thanks, it's a pleasure to be speaking with you today.

Michael: Can you describe the Mummers parade for those of us who might not be as familiar with it? And can you tell us a little bit about its relation to blackface performance?

Christian: Sure. The Mummers Parade has been an official city sanctioned Philadelphia tradition since 1901. So, in 1901, for New Years, the city decided to sponsor a parade. And this decision to sponsor a parade, it didn't come out of nowhere. There had been, for decades prior, lots and lots of street performances happening between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, some of which could turn violent. And many of which involved the city's various ethnic and racial communities, kind of policing their boundaries. So, performances that were celebratory, but performances that also could be staging grounds for communal conflict. So, by organizing a city sanctioned parade, the idea was simply to take this chaotic energy that it was very difficult to control, and channel it into an official event that happened during daylight hours along one major thorough fair. And could become a vehicle for respectability for the mostly male working class participants in the city's more informal street festivities.

At this time, the turn of the twentieth century, the minstrel show was in decline, as many of your listeners probably know. Minstrelsy really peaked in popularity in the 1840s and ’50s, and then after the Civil War, remained popular, but was gradually eclipsed by Vaudeville in the early twentieth century. However, in Philadelphia, the Minstrel show seems to have persisted a little bit longer than in other major northern US cities. So, the minstrel repertoire was still quite active. And I think that as community performers were looking to stage more formal presentations as part of the Mummers parade, they often drew on the minstrel repertoire, because that was the popular theatre of their time and place. It was the theatre that they were familiar with. So, you see characters, dance steps, costuming, and make up styles, songs transmitted from late minstrelsy into the early Mummers Parade. And there's some sketchy evidence that at least one minstrel show producer in Philadelphia was involved in the Mummers and their first couple of decades of official operation.

So, there may or may not have been a kind of direct line for some of this minstrel show repertoire to make it into the Mummers Parade. But, regardless, it became part of the structure of the parade nonetheless. So, you see, for example, the Mummers Parade string bands looking an awful lot like minstrel show stage bands, just in terms of the style of music that they played, the instrumentation, etc. And then, of course, the Mummers Parade continued to develop over time, develop its own distinctive styles. And there were other influences on besides the minstrel show. But, I think the fact that the beginnings of the official parade coincided with a moment when minstrelsy was very well established and still popular in working class culture, really helped to cement the minstrel repertoire as a bedrock of a lot of Mummers performances.

Michael: Now, the particular figure that you talk about in your essay, “The Wenches of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade,” is this figure, the Mummers Wench, who or what is this figure? And where does it come from?

Christian: Okay. Well, I think there are two ways to answer that question. One of them is to answer it theatrically. Like, what is the theatre history behind this character. And that's what I'll go into first. The second way to answer the question is, who performs this role? Why is this role attractive, and to whom is it attractive in the parade in both our contemporary twenty-first century moment, and also historically?

So, in terms of theatre history, many of your listeners may know this. But, I think it's worth revealing a little bit of the history of the minstrel show and how it came to be. The minstrel show as an evening length autonomous theatrical genre, emerges somewhere between 1842 and 1843, and it seems to have sprung up more or less simultaneously in Buffalo, New York City, and Philadelphia where you have for the first time larger groups of blackface performers performing together, and entertaining audiences for something more than just an entry act song and dance number. Before the minstrel show really comes into being in 1842/1843, many of the acts that would become part of the minstrel show already existed at least in some nascent form. Mostly as enter act entertainment. So for some time prior to the [inaudible 00:06:29] to the minstrel show, white men in blackface and drag had been performing to entertain audiences in the popular theatre. This goes back at least from the 1820s, if not perhaps a bit earlier.

And so, this figure of the blacked faced wench becomes part of the early minstrel show. But, does not develop within the minstrel show. It was a blackface act that was kind of taken and appropriated, and adapted into minstrelsy. And one of the things that, I think, it's important to say about the wench, and many other people have noted this, probably most famously Eric Lot, in his book Love and Theft. The wench made no attempt at verisimilitude. This was not an attempt for male performers, white male performers, to pass as women, black women, white women, any woman. It was rather a display of masculinity through the contrast between female dress and the obvious masculine physique of the performers. And very often the wench act had explicitly or implicitly anti-feminist message embedded within it. We know this is from the lyrics of some the wench songs, which are quite derogatory towards women. Songs like, Lucy Long, for example.

But, we also know it from the costuming practices associated with the wench. The wench almost always wore bloomers. And bloomers were a signature garment of the women's rights and women's suffrage movements. Women wanting to wear something more like pants in order to be regarded as something closer to citizens. It was something that the wench act openly held up for mockery. One of the reasons that I think the wench act of the antebellum minstrel show is connected geologically to the wench act of the contemporary Mummers parade, is that the Mummers wench still wears bloomers. This is a costume piece that's been retained now for over 150 years in the wench act. And it's unlikely that most people who perform as wenches today know, or frankly care much about the fact that bloomers were associated with women's rights and women's suffrage, and were worn periodically by wenches in the minstrel show. But, nonetheless, the persistence of this costume piece suggests that there is a line of historical connection between the minstrel show wench act and the Mummers wench act.

Now, in terms of why this figure of the wench would still be popular in the contemporary Mummers parade, and who performs as wenches, the Mummers parade has at this point about 8,000 participants. That's down from a peak of 12,000 participants in the early to mid 1980s. So, the parade is fading somewhat in popularity. There is not as many spectators at the parade as there were in its heyday. But, the wench brigades offer a fairly easy way to participate in the Mummers parade. If you're going ... So, the Mummers parade is almost byzantine in terms of its organization. There are all of these different clubs and divisions, and competing categories in which one can participate. Some of them involve a high degree of commitment. If you're going to play in a Mummers parade string band, you need to play an instrument, and you need to play it well, and you need to be able to play it on parade, in the cold, on New Year's Day. If you're in a fancy club, or fancy brigade, you need to have the time, and money to purchase an expensive costume and rehearse Broadway style choreography and again, be ready and willing to perform it in the cold on New Year's Day.

The wench brigades don't rehearse much. They wear bloomers and dresses, they carry parasols. They drink beer. They get together at a clubhouse, maybe starting in the couple days after Christmas to get ready. They select a theme usually a couple months beforehand so that they can order their costumes. But, if you've got a couple hundred bucks and a willingness to go out on the street and be part of the parade, you can perform as a wench. So, the barriers are very low. Some Mummers clubs in other divisions have, in fact, switched over to competing as wench brigades in recent years. And the wenches are the only area of the parade that really seems to be growing. So, there's something fun. There's obviously something fun about being in the parade. And being a wench is the easiest way to do it. And so, I think that that is a large part of what's continuing to drive the popularity of the wench brigades.

Now, the wenches are controversial, because many Philadelphian know their history. They know that this is a figure that's associated in some loose way with blackface performance. Because, most of the wenches wore blackface until 1963 or 1964, and the wenches are sometimes deliberately politically provocative. A couple of years ago, there was a frockus over one of the wenches in the parade carrying a sign that said, "Wench Lives Matter" in obvious parody of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that's especially freighted given who the wenches are. Given that they're this group of mostly white men who associate themselves knowingly with a performance tradition that has a racist past. So, the wenches, they're complex figure in theatre history, and they're a complex figure in the parade because I don't think that the desire to publicly exhibit misogyny or racism or homophobia is what drives most contemporary wenches to perform.

But, nonetheless, it's kind of a lack of concern for those issues, a lack of though as to how other citizens of the city might feel about the persistence of this tradition that makes the wenches continuously a lightning rod. In way that I think mirrors and microcosm our contemporary national political dilemmas. Where many commentators agree that not all supporters of Donald Trump are overtly racist, but they don't object to associating themselves and voting for a president who is overtly racist, and who makes racist comments, and pursues racist policies. So, what to make of that? Right? What to make of this sort of ambivalent place where a lot of white Americans, even if they don't profess racist beliefs themselves, are still willing to countenance racism in public life? And I think that part of why I wanted to study the Mummers parade is, it offers a local and theatrically rich example of that dilemma.

Michael: Yeah. So, this is this really complicated thorny problem as you say. There's sort of perhaps lack of concern about the sensitivities of some of the people who might be witnessing this performance in the parade. But, at the same time, the way that this has become kind of this tradition within the city of Philadelphia. Can you talk to us about what happens in the 1960s? How does the height of the Civil Rights Movement bring about a challenge to traditions like the Mummers wench?

Christian: The Civil Rights movement in Philadelphia was quite strong. And it really achieved, I think, a zenith of sorts in 1963/1964 and this came about for a couple of reasons. There had been for a long time in Philly, a very active NAACP chapter. A man named Cecil B. Moore, was elected local chapter president of the NAACP in the early 1960s. Moore was much more willing than previous leaders to be confrontational, to step outside of the respectability politics, that the NAACP had become known for by that point in history. So, he organized street protests over all sorts of issues, whether it was the exclusion of African Americans from labor union membership, the discriminatory treatment by the city with regards to the distribution of public services, or with regards to the way that black people were depicted in the Mummers parade.

So, Cecil B. Moore teamed up with the Congress of Racial Equality in 1963 to protest, not just the Mummers wench, but more broadly, the practice of blackface masking in the Mummers parade, which was quite pervasive. And they decided to attack this practice in two ways. The first was, through a legal challenge. And an attorney working for the NAACP at the time, names Charles Houser, filed suit in Philadelphia court of common pleas. To say given that this is a parade that receives city funding and happens in public space, this display of racist performance, essentially, of blackface worn by thousands of men on New Year's Day shouldn't be allowed. And then the second tactic that this coalition of civil rights groups adopted was to actually try to block the parade from happening on the street.

So, I've talked to people on background, who are on both sides of this confrontation. What people have told me is that it could have turned into a fairly ugly and violent race riot between the Mummers and the civil rights protestors. And there are a few reasons that that did not happen. One of them has to do with the weather in Philadelphia on New Year's Day. When it's really exceptionally cold and snowy on New Year's, the parade is sometimes delayed for a few days. And that happened in 1964, the parade was pushed back from January 1—January 4 because of a big New Year's Day snow storm. And that kind of, that gave people a little bit of time to cool off.

There was also another dynamic at work within the African American community in Philadelphia, where the civil rights movement, of course spoke for that community, but there were other constituencies in the community as well. A lot of African American musicians in Philly worked for Mummers groups, and especially for wench brigades to provide on a hired basis accompaniment to the performances. And some of these relationships between African American brass bands and individual wench brigades dated back decades. And there were signed contracts in place, and there were some black musicians in Philly, probably because they wanted to get paid, maybe because they sympathized with the Mummers, I don't really know, who wanted to be in the parade even though civil rights organizations were calling for a boycott and protest. So, that created some distention within the black community, and then a lot of ministers in the city called for the boycott of the parade. They called for African Americans not to attend and not to participate in any way on a hired basis or otherwise. But, they didn't necessarily endorse the call for a protest.

So, on the one hand you have civil rights leaders who are saying, let's fight this in court, let's go and fight it on the streets. On the other hand, you have ministers who are saying, let's boycott this, let's really dissociate ourselves from it and send a clear message that way, but be perhaps a little bit less confrontational. And then a smaller, but still important and vocal group of musicians, who didn't want to participate in either the protest or the boycott. So, one of the ways in which I try to historicize this moment is that it was actually a moment that exposed some tensions within the black community in Philadelphia over how best to fight, to engage in the important and justified fight for civil rights. And these controversies came to the surface with the Mummers parade in a way that they didn't with, say protests over city services or labor union membership, Where there was clearly unity that these are issues that needed to be addressed.

But, because the Mummers parade, I think, engages ... It's a form of symbolic politics on the one hand. And it's also something that's deeply historically rooted on the other. And that reflects many, many decades of engagement and cross appropriation between black and white culture in Philadelphia. The positions that people took on it were a little bit more complicated. In the end though, the legal challenge was upheld. Mummers were banned from wearing blackface on Broad Street, on the parade route. They were not banned from wearing blackface elsewhere in the city, including at the large after party that happens on 2nd Street or Two Street, which is kind of the heart of an Irish American ethnic enclave in South Philadelphia where many of the Mummers groups have clubhouses. And then by the following year, by New Year's 1965, blackface went from being a pervasive disguise that you would see thousands of people wearing openly on the parade route, to being something that you saw far less commonly. And that when you did see it, it was usually on the side streets, usually at the after party. And that's continued to be the case.

I mean, I've attended the Mummers parade many times as a spectator and as a participant. I've never not seen blackface. But, I've never seen more than a few people in blackface. So, the practice persists, but it persists much less frequently, and much less openly than it did before the civil rights challenges. And I think that's a detent that most people in Philly can live with, even if many Philadelphian, and even many Mummers are offended by the continued use of blackface by certain members of the Mummers community.

Michael: So, at one point in your article you quote the scholar W.T. Layman, who points out all the ways in which elements of minstrel shows crept into our popular culture. And I'm paraphrasing here, but it basically then asks, why do we talk about this style of performance as though it's a thing of the past? What does your research into Mummers wenches and the larger context of the Philadelphia Mummers parade suggest to you about the legacy of blackface performance, and its continued influence on our culture?

Christian: Well, that is again, a very good question. And I do ... So, for those of you who maybe interested in tracking this down, I use W.T. Layman's phrase "the blackface lore cycle", which he uses to describe the way in which blackface kind of cyclically recurs in American culture, and crops up in unexpected places. He analyzes, for example, MC Hammer's dances in the early 1990s and the way in which they're connected to, both to African American dance, but also to certain minstrel show appropriations of black dance that seemed to have faded away. And yet, they come back. And so, I sort of draw on that loosely to inspire my own analysis of the Mummers wench. And I want to try to respond to this question with both and answer that's specific to Philadelphia and the Mummers parade, and an answer that's broader and I think that gestures outward globally.

One of the things that I write about in the introduction to my book, Haunted City, is a controversy that erupted in 1987 over an exhibit on the Mummers parade in City Hall in Philadelphia. And as part of this exhibit, there were a number of black and white photographs that had been taken in 1984 by a photographer named James Conroy, that were hung outside the city council chambers and outside the mayor's office. Now, this was at a time when Philadelphia had its first African American mayor, Wilson Good, who is best remembered for those of you who know something about Philly, for the MOVE bombing a little bit later on. The incident where this black collective that was living in West Philly, in conditions that a lot of neighbors had been complaining about. They'd been evicted, they hadn't listened. Eventually, Wilson Good ordered the fire-bombing of this compound and a number of people died, including several children.

So, he's not a mayor who is fondly remembered. But, before all this happened, he was really seen as a champion of black rights in Philadelphia, it was enormously significant that the city had finally elected a black mayor after having a very large African American population that had been under represented in city politics for a long time. So, Wilson Good did not like these photographs. And he and his administration ordered that they be taken down. And that infuriated the artist and also the organizers of the exhibit because the photographs did not actually show performers in blackface. They appeared to show performers in blackface, because the photographs were black and white. But, the photographer attested that these performers were wearing purple, and blue, and dark green make up. They were not in blackface. So, the technology of black and white photography and created an optical illusion of sorts that made it seem as though blackface was being celebrated as part of the contemporary Mummers parade.

And my read on these photographs is that both sides of this debate have a point. The defenders of the photographs are right about what the photographs actually depict. And they're also right that there is something troubling about a public art exhibition being censored in City Hall, because the mayor happens to dislike its politics. At the same time, I've read through some of the judge's notes from the Mummers parade, from the time of the blackface controversy in 1963/64 forward. And one thing that comes up again and again in these notes, is the use of dark colored make up. And I think that this was for many Mummers a substitute for blackface. If blackface was banned, but purple face, or blue face, or dark green face were not banned, then it was a way to sort of maintain something close to blackface without actually getting arrested or kicked off the parade route. You still frequently see yellow face and brown face in the parade. There's at least one account of a group of Mummers in purple make up painting black streaks on their faces after they finished their performance at city hall at the terminus of the parade route.

So, dark colored make up in some ways substituted for blackface. And the black and white photographs revealed that. Right? They reveal what I call, drawing on another Mummers scholar name Elizabeth Layton, of the strategically invisible way in which blackface persists in the parade. And I think that's where we are now with regards to this legacy in our theatre culture, our performance culture, and our popular culture. Blackface when performed explicitly draws denunciations from all quarters. But, close analogs to blackface, whether musical, visual, sartorial, etc are still to be found everywhere. I kind of keep an ongoing log of this, but it seems that every few weeks at least, there's a story somewhere in the world about some prominent performer appearing in blackface on tv or at a public event, or on stage. And this almost reflexive outcry that happens. And the most recent incident was a comedian in Japan named, Mastoshi Harata, I believe. Who appeared in a New Year's Eve performance on television in blackface, and a kinky wig, and a Detroit Lions jacket, trying to evoke an Eddie Murphy character from a 1980s film.

And so, blackface, I mean as ... And this has been noted by many scholars before me. Blackface traveled well beyond the borders of the US in the nineteenth century. I mean, blackface touring acts were popular in England, right around the same time that they became popular in the US. And blackface tours to South Africa, to Australia, through Continental Europe were quite common by the latter part of the nineteenth century. So, blackface has a global legacy. And we condemn it when we see it explicitly. But, I think we overlook it when it's veiled, whether by a slight change in the color of the makeup, or a slight inflection of a performance that allows us to draw this line that you spoke of in your introduction to the interview. Right? A line between how past performance traditions dealt with race, and how we deal with race in theatre and performance today.

And I think that line is rather blurry. Right? And I'm not sure what the implications of that are. I mean, I think that the danger in historicizing contemporary performance practices with regards to the minstrel shows legacy or to blackface legacies, is that it brings about a kind of a censorious attitude towards some of this material. That we need to excise it. I don't think we need to excise it. In fact, I mean, I love the Mummers parade. And I hope that it has many more years and decades of success as a local tradition. But, I think the Mummers need to grapple with this history. And I think that it needs to be openly acknowledged. It needs to be discussed. But, that could be an opening for some meaningful inter-group dialogue in Philadelphia. Which is still, like many large American cities, quite segregated, quite racially divided.

And there's more and more interest in the Mummers parade from people outside the traditional white working class communities that have provided the majority of Mummers performers. And I think the parade can and should become more diverse and that's only going to happen if the parade's racist legacy is brought out into the open to be discussed. And I'm open to the wenches making arguments for maintaining their tradition. I don't think their tradition should be banned. But, I think they should be held accountable for it. And I think that that's really the contribution that I hope this work makes to debates in Philly over the Mummers parade, but also to larger debates in theatre scholarship, and in popular culture over blackface and its legacies. That calling these legacies out addressing them has the power through criticism, through openness, through historical engagement to start to bring about change. Not by trying to change either the present or the past, but simply to acknowledge uncomfortable parts of the past that are still with us in the present. And then to see where that leads us as citizens, as scholars, and as artists with regards to this legacy.

Michael: We'll post additional links and information that will let you explore the legacy of the minstrel show and learn more about the Mummers parade.

Christian, thank you so much for illuminating this complicated piece of Philadelphia's performance history.

Christian: All right. Thank you. It was a pleasure.

Michael: If you'd like to continue today's conversation, please visit Howlround.com and follow HowlRound and @theaterhistory on Twitter and Facebook. You can also visit our website at theatrehistorypodcast.net, where you can find links to all of our episodes. And you can email your questions and comments about the show to [email protected].

A big thank you to the staff at HowlRound who make this show possible. Our theme music is The Black Crook Gallop, which comes to us courtesy of the New York Public Library Libretto Project and Adam Roberts. Thanks as well to Tip Cress who designed our logo. And finally, thank you for listening.

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