A ‘genuine display of Ethiopian life’: the Virginia Minstrels at the Manchester Athenaeum

Jessica H. Legnini


The Virginia Minstrels were founded in January 1843 in New York City and were the first blackface performers to put on a full-length blackface musical “concert”.  By May 1843 they had brought their act to Britain. They performed first in Liverpool and then at the Athenaeum in Manchester and the Queen’s Theatre in Spring Gardens. They ended their tour in July, appearing as part of the Wizard of the North’s magic show at the Adelphi Theatre in London. This article is concerned with the Virginia Minstrels’ performances at the Athenaeum in Manchester which took place in June 1843. The article illustrates how the performances of the Virginia Minstrels contributed to the construction of middle-class identity in the Athenaeum audience, by speaking directly to the middle-class imperatives of “respectability” and “improvement.” They did this through their choice of venue and their advertising in local newspapers - which framed the performance as an ethnographic “delineation”. Nevertheless, the article also suggests that there were limits to the Athenaeum audience’s embrace of “respectability” as the Virginia Minstrels’ produced a comedy act that relied heavily upon a strong sense of the incongruous as well as a sense of superiority in their audience over both manual labour and Americans in general.

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