Without 19th-century minstrelsy, much of today's popular entertainment - the skits of Flip Wilson, the verbal exaggerations of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., or the routines of Dewey (Pigmeat) Markham - would not exist.

But the life and work of the early minstrels has been largely ignored in literature, the movies and television. This void is partly - and fortunately - filled tonight by "Minstrel Man," a two-hour drama that airs at 9 on Channel 9 (WTOP).

The show is a poignant account of a black minstrel troupe in the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] It is a reminder of the absurdities Afro-Americans had to endure to become entertainers less than a century ago. They were forced to imitate white performers who in turn were caricaturing their idea of plantation blacks.

Like white Americans, Afro-Americans "blacked up," that is, they applied burnt cork to their faces and painted their lips bright red to make them look outlandishly large. Black performers imitated bizarre impersonations of themselves because it was the only way they could break into show business. In the 19th century, minstrelsy viable entertainment form of the day.

These entertainers - black and white - delivered "coon" songs, danced jigs and mugged frequently in groutesque style, shaping stereotypes that exist to this day. the grinning face comedy is still very much a part of the American consciouness.

Even today black performers face audiences that expect them to employ many of the old stereotypes. And these performers often comply. Thus, we have Flip Wilson's bossy, sassy caricature of black women in Geraldine, Sammy Davis Jr.'s vocal imitations of Kingfish or Richard Pryor's mugging and eye-rolling, all of which are throwbacks to minstrelsy.

The teleplay of tonight's show subtly delineates two brothers responding to the minstrel life. Harry Brown Jr., played splendidly by Glynn Turman, and Rennie Brown, warmly portrayed by Stanley Clay, strike out on their own in show business after the early death of their minstrel performing father.

But Harry, who has ambitions of show business glery, still has hopes of collaborating with his brother. Rennie, however, thinks dignity is more important than survival and ambition. He thinks blacking-up is servile - and he refuses to submit.

The clash of these very human attitudes, enriched by con man Charlie Bates - marvelously performed by Ted Ross - makes for an absorbing drama.

One of the salient features of this production is its believability, a feature not usually found in television dramas about Afro-Americans.

Though fictional, the show is based in fact. There were black minstrel shows in the 1890s breaking out of the blackface routine and heading toward the black musical comedies of the early 20th century. Rennie Brown's defiance and death were modeled on performer Louis Wright, who was lynched and had his tongue cut out by a white mob in Missouri. Wright had cursed whites who were snowballing him and his woman friend.

Nevertheless, "Minstrel Man" is a compelling drama of real people and problems. It also poses questions.

Through gross caricature of blacks, many 19th-century white Americans rid themselves of anxieties and marked out an exalted position in the restricted world they created.

If the influences of these caricatures remain today in the comedy of many black - and some white - performers, the question arises as to how far Americans have really come in their preceptions of one another.