Sometimes it can be a tricky thing to tackle a serious topic in theatre. specially if you are tackling a tricky piece of history in a musical format. Many times I hear from people that they want to be entertained, not challenged with serious moral and ethical issues, particularly in a musical. While I can understand that to a degree, tickets are expensive, you want to not feel like what you watched has weighed you down while making you think, I believe good theatre can be entertaining and thought provoking. No show has exemplified that more for me this year than THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.
The Old Globe presents the West Coast Premiere of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS the critically acclaimed musical about the story of The Scottsboro Boys. Playing at the Globe this is presented in association with American Conservatory Theater.
John Kander and Fred Ebb were never ones to shy away from controversial or potentially polarizing stories in their musicals. In Chicagothey mock the justice system with a pair of merry murderesses and Cabaret is set the tumultuous city of Berlin, just before Hitler’s rise to power. So it is no surprise that Kander and Ebb chose to tackle the landmark trials of The Scottsboro Boys.
Base on a not particularly proud moment in American history, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is follows the true story of nine young black men aged 13 to 19 who were arrested on trumped up charges in 1931 Alabama. The nine men (and boys) were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. The ordeal that followed involved a series of trials that would last over years, and in some cases decades. Their lives and experiences helped spark the civil rights movement.
So how does Kander and Ebb take this sensitive and politically charged moment and turn it into a musical? What device would best be used to tell this story? Kander and Ebb chose to frame it in the guise of a minstrel show. This format only helps reinforce the racism that is at the root of everything that happens to them. The cast of characters includes a kindly, old white southern Interlocutor (master of ceremonies of a minstrel show), the nine men who portray the accused and two performers who play the rest of the roles needed.
Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) take on the roles of the abusive guards, the slick and conniving lawyers, and anyone else the plot requires. They play them with a gleeful energy; as fools who will do anything for a laugh to entertain their audience. Their cruelty and their cheerful willingness to “help” tell this story, only underscores the menace in their attitude and behavior.
The nine young men are introduced to the audience as they are introduced to each other. Aside from the two brothers riding the rails, none of the men knew each other prior to this experience. They were all riding the rails in hopes of something better before they were pulled off the train. Nile Bullock plays the youngest of the group, a 13 year old boy who doesn’t even know the definition of rape, the very crime he is accused of committing. Bullock is a wonderful performer and dancer, and his tap number “Electric Chair” is a great dance set within a child’s nightmare. As the central character, Clifton Duncan is fantastic as the steadfast Haywood. He comes into jail as an illiterate young man and becomes the focal point of the story as he refuses to agree to a lie in order to get parole. The song “go Back Home” is gorgeous and Duncan’s portrayal is both powerful and yearning; his greatest defiance is that he tells the truth.
Individually these actors are strong, with impressive singing and dancing skills. As an ensemble they shine, with many of them playing double or triple roles when needed. James T. Lane and Clifton Oliver are funny and galling as the accusing ladies in “Alabama Ladies”. Vocally they are at their best as a group in their tightly harmonized numbers. Particular standout ensemble songs are “Commencing in Chattanooga” and “Southern Days”.
As the Interlocutor, Ron Holgate is the perfect Southern gentlemen, smiling congenially and seemingly unaware of how inappropriate his requests are of these boys. This is never more apparent then when he encourages the boys to sing one of the “oldies” which turns out to be a lovely song about those consummate days of slavery. Mid song he commands them to smile and the smiles immediately appear, along with verses about lynching and danger. In this moment you know this is a man who is not just out of step with the world he is in, but also is can’t understand why these boys would ever want things to change.
Hovering along the edges of the performances is The Lady, the silent witness to their suffering. The audience can easily recognize her as Rosa Parks. Her addition is not just for added drama, but as proof that the story of these boys changed lives in smaller and more personal ways. In 1931, the then Rosa McCauley met her future husband Raymond Parks at a NAACP rally. Parks presence in this show is representative of those that bore witness and then took action as a result of what happened to these nine young men.
The show balances on an uneasy tension between entertainment and indignation. The juxtaposition of a story about racism bring told via minstrel show seems like an incompatible pairing. Should we cheer at the entertaining tap number or not since it is set in the execution room while the guards torment the little boy? Do we laugh at the jokes even as we are we offended by their content? In our sometimes overly politically correct society, this show deliberately puts the audience in an awkward position to further drive home the story. To be clear, while Southern racism is given most of the blame, Northern patronizing attitudes both to the boys and the South in general are not given a free pass.
This musical is unsettling, thoughtful, infuriating and entertaining all at once. It steps outside of the traditional musical format and offers us an experience we will not forget. I urge you to take them up on this offer. The minstrel show is told through the eyes and attitudes of the South in 1931, which makes it all that much more affecting when Haywood starts the show by requesting, “This time can we tell the truth?”