Theater Review: “The Scottsboro Boys” — A Musical That Matters

Making exhilarating use of the controversial (and once popular) format of the minstrel show, the musical is a relentless, one hour and fifty minute excursion into the history of racial bias in America, from the cotton fields to the Civil Rights movement.

The Scottsboro Boys, Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb. Book by David Thompson. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Music Direction by Matthew Stern. Choreography by Ilyse Robbin. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through January 22, 2017

Photo: Nile Hawver / Nile Scott Shots.

Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Photo: Nile Hawver / Nile Scott Shots.

By Kamela Dolinova

John Kander and Fred Ebb, the legendary songwriting team behind such dark, political, and highly theatrical musicals as Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, maintained that high standard with their final collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, a show based on the infamous 1931 Alabama case that saw nine black teenagers sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit. Making exhilarating use of the controversial (and once popular) format of the minstrel show, the piece is a relentless, one hour and fifty minute excursion into the history of racial bias in America, from the cotton fields to the Civil Rights movement.

Watching the production’s opening segment, the show’s 12 Tony nominations make sense. Halfway through, the reasons for the 2010 musical’s two-month run on the Great White Way and no Tony wins also become crystal clear. This is a profoundly uncomfortable experience, an exploration of prejudice that holds up a mirror to a (largely white) audience that wasn’t ready for it. At the time, #blacklivesmatter was years away, but America’s shockingly biased police and criminal justice system was a clear and present disgrace. Awareness was growing; as was the usual inclination to do little.

The Scottsboro Boys may be set in the ‘30s but, to its credit, it is directed at the 21st century, spending little time pandering to liberal guilt. This isn’t your typical “gee, remember how bad racism used to be” fare. Unlike movies like The Help or Driving Miss Daisy, which do their best to assure white people how progressive they have become, The Scottsboro Boys explores how the damage is inescapable, back in the day and now. This decision to be scathingly honest ran up against the delusional attitudes and platitudes of Broadway audiences and critics. One reviewer, clearly missing the point, panned the show as “the Great White Guilt on the Great White Way.”

The power of its message doesn’t mean that SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Boston premiere staging isn’t enjoyable. The splendid, nearly all-African-American ensemble is anchored by the powerful baritone and gravitas of De’Lon Grant as Haywood Patterson and further energized by the versatile Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (who play a number of parts) as the over-the-top minstrel show team, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones. Overall, the costumes, dancing, storytelling dramatics, and staging are first-rate. While the songs don’t have the catchiness of Chicago, they are exuberant and, when necessary, deeply touching. Also, unlike the bitter satire of the former musical, the music and book of The Scottsboro Boys generates a deep empathy for its characters.

Of course, empathy is inescapable. From our perspective there can be nothing but sympathy – and shame – for what these victims of hatred endured. For those unfamiliar with the true story, the Scottsboro Boys were nine black Alabama teenagers – the youngest not yet 13 – falsely accused, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for the rape of two white women in 1931. Repeated miscarriages of justice led to endless retrials and appeals, lynch mobs in the streets, sensationalized press coverage nationwide, protests in the North, and the involvement of both the Communist Party and the NAACP. But while several of those charged were released (after years of legal wrangling), the last three defendants weren’t officially pardoned until 2013, well after their deaths. The clear miscarriage of justice galvanized the Civil Rights Movement and beyond. The show’s single female cast member, who bears silent witness to the proceedings, makes a historic gesture in the final scene that every audience member will recognize.

This silent “audience” figure, known only as “The Lady” (Shalaye Camillo), is one of a number of ingenious devices the show makes use of. In her prim church suit and hat, with infinite composure and compassion in her face, she comes to stand for every black woman who has watched the boys and men in her life jailed, shot, beaten, hanged, and humiliated for being black in America. Her silence is a sign of her powerlessness, her bottomless grief and, of course, her political invisibility. She serves, too, as a symbol of home, of the motherly comfort and youthful romantic longings of the Boys as they waste away in a prison cell. But, most of all, she is a surrogate for the audience: at first passive, she becomes increasingly desperate for a chance to take action. Then, in a marvelous reveal, she decides she will no longer stay silent.

But it is the minstrel show framing device that provides the richest commentary on this horrendous episode in American history. Led by another stock character, the Interlocutor (Russell Garrett, the cast’s only white member), the Boys form a troupe who march behind and in time with him, as he struts in a bright white suit and top hat. They repeatedly bring chairs on stage and sit in a semicircle on command, counting themselves off by number rather than name in a haunting, dehumanizing refrain. As the story progresses, the troupe becomes less keen to comply with the white man’s version of the truth. The “end men,” Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, are (as demanded by tradition) white men in blackface who serve as wisecracking sidekicks, concocting cruel and crude black stereotypes. In an ingenious script-flip, the production’s black actors take on the roles of various white characters – the racist sheriff and his deputy, the prison guards and Southern district attorney, and, in a particularly cutting turn, the defendants’ Jewish lawyer, Samuel Liebowitz.

By having most of its white characters portrayed by African-American actors, The Scottsboro Boys looks at the thorny interactions among race, gender, and class in fresh ways. In spite of – or perhaps because of – the two-dimensional nature of minstrelsy, moments of sentiment or bombast receive a welcome twist of ironic complication. Liebowitz (played with great down-to-earth gentility by Green), is introduced as a lawyer from the North who is out of his depth. He quickly reveals his Northern hypocrisy. “Back in Manhattan ask anyone,” he sings, “There’s no bigger voice for equal rights than me … Just ask my maid Magnolia and I’m sure she’d agree.”

Still, while he’s not the perfect advocate, Liebowitz is sympathetic, and does everything possible to see that justice is served; what begins as an easy dig at well-meaning whites becomes a fuller picture of a man trying his hardest to win in a system that’s rigged against him, too. For example, Parent’s Bones, playing the Attorney General, proclaims to the court that “there’s nothing like Jew money,” implying that testimony supporting the boys’ case has been bought. The show’s target is not just Southern white anti-Semitism: the complex relationship between Jews and African-Americans is also explored.

D'Lon Grant (center) and members of the cast of the SpeakEasy Stage production of "The Scottsboro Boys." Photo: Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

D’Lon Grant (center) and members of the cast of the SpeakEasy Stage production of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Photo: Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Initially, the white women accusers, played to the hilt by two of the Boys (Darrell Morris, Jr. and Isaiah Reynolds) come off as cartoon villains. But then this dismissive treatment is tossed aside. In today’s climate, the women’s carelessly false rape accusations, delivered with giggles over a ragtime beat (“Alabama Ladies”), raise feminist issues. But then Ruby Bates (Reynolds, in a showstopping turn) recants her testimony. And Victoria Price (Morris, Jr.), though still filled with racist vitriol, nearly falls apart as she reminds us of how few options a woman of her class had. Exhausted after repeating her testimony in court for six years, she shares “a little lesson I learned behind the mill when I was thirteen. They love you when you got something to give but once they finish getting whatever it is you’re giving they’re gone and you’re forgotten. “They really hurt you,” she sings, “They take your virtue, and when it’s taken … they win. You lose.” The only power for “white trash women,” as they are called early in the show,  was tormenting those who were even less powerful. Kander and Ebb draw on that reality — as an explanation, not an excuse —  to help us understand the show’s most hateful characters.

Of course, it’s the Scottsboro Boys themselves who suffer the most, and the performers communicate the plight of their characters with heartbreaking sincerity and nuanced realism. In real life, the case of Scottsboro Boys became a tragic circus, which the musical transforms into a sardonic minstrel show that, through the use of  irony and pity, depicts the vulnerable humanity of nine innocent kids put away to die in a hostile world. The minstrel show – a form nearly extinct by the era of the trial – is paradoxical: it is undeniably archaic, yet it reminds us of how few years have passed since the end of  slavery, Jim Crow, and Southern lynchings. The cartoonish sheriff, strutting bowlegged across the stage like Yosemite Sam — he looks like a Bizarro version of Cleavon Little from Blazing Saddles – is utterly ridiculous. Yet every time he points his pistol at another black man’s body just for existing it is shocking. Every time one of the characters is grabbed, pushed, cuffed, beaten, or intimidated, the contemporary echoes resonate: this is not about how people once were. It’s about the way we live now.

In the end, there is no happy ending. Four of the nine Boys are eventually released, but the closing number tells us of their sad fates: died in jail, committed suicide, disappeared, drunk themselves to death. As American prisons continue to fill with young black men, while others are killed in the streets during routine stops, The Scottboro Boys reminds us that the injustice is far from over.

Kamela Dolinova is a writer, actor, director, healer, and person with too many jobs. She loves the community and little theatre scenes in Boston, and has recently enjoyed working with Flat Earth Theatre, Theatre@First, and Maiden Phoenix Theatre Company. She also blogs at Power In Your Hands.

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