The Scottsboro Boys
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
November 4, 2010
Run—do not walk, shuffle, cakewalk, or jump Jim Crow—to see The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway. WOW! This show has wonderful music, out-of-this-world dancing, superb acting, excellent costumes, and clever staging. The Scottsboro Boys, a tragicomic musical framing into a minstrel show the story of nine Black teenagers railroaded in the 1930s Alabama courts, is wild, wonderful, wacky, bold, daring, surprising, shocking, and outrageous.
In retrospect, minstrel shows were outrageous; starting in the 1840s, white men dressed up in blackface and, in song and dance, perpetuated Negro stereotypes which persisted for over a century in theatre, movies, television, and music. (Eventually, black men formed their own minstrel troupes, also using blackface.)
Someone could say: who could turn the Scottsboro tragedy into a musical? Decades ago, a show like this may have been as welcome as "Springtime for Hitler" was to its opening night audience in the original 1968 film The Producers. So it's fitting that Susan Stroman, who directed The Producers on Broadway nearly ten years ago, directed and choreographed this stunning work. Composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, who wrote the songs to Cabaret and Chicago, have helped frame yet another shameful "underbelly" story into a musical masterwork. David Thompson earns praise for the book, Beowulf Boritt for the scenic design, and Toni-Leslie James for the costumes.
On a sparse stage with black walls and gray stonelike arches, a lone black woman, The Lady (Sharon Washington), sits, cake box in lap, as if she is waiting for a bus. Behind her is stacked a pile of white chairs. A bass drum thumps; a tambourine tinkles. Suddenly, the men of the minstrel troupe race down the aisle to the stage, greeting the audience, bowing to The Lady. The men gyrate, tumble, leap in the air, bang their tambourines, and promise their audience a grand ol' time. The Interlocutor (veteran Broadway star John Cullum), master of ceremonies and the only white performer, announces that tonight they'll tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys. One of the Boys, Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), steps forward and asks, "Can we tell the truth this time?"
The Interlocutor introduces his closest helpers, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), two clownlike characters in brightly-colored suits, who will play various roles, as will the other nine troupers who play the Boys. As the story commences, the white chairs are converted into a railroad car, with the tambourines as wheels, as the boys hop the rails hoping to find jobs or return home. Following a fight between white and black hobos, Sheriff Bones and Deputy Tambo drag the nine boys and two white female hobos from the boxcars. The two women—actually two Boys (Christian Dante White, James T. Lane) in ladies' caps and shawls—hoping to avoid arrest, accuse the young black men of raping them. The white chairs become the Boys' jail, and later their courtroom.
Kangaroo courts and media circuses follow. The play displays the absurdity of racism, blending the comic racism of the minstrel show with the tragic racism of the trials and imprisonment. The transitions are smooth if not seamless, moving from the groan-producing puns of Tambo and Bones to the satiric portrayals of both Southern and Northern "types" to the more somber scenes as the Boys in jail await their fate. In song, prison guards torment the youngest Boy, Eugene Williams (Jeremy Gumbs), with threats of the electric chair. New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (McClendon), who defends the Boys during their second trial, says that Manhattan is more just than Alabama, and that his black cook, maid, chauffeur, and laundress would agree. One Boy, Andy Wright (Derrick Cobey), starts teaching Haywood to read by likening the letter B to bosoms. Meanwhile, the speechless Lady observes, offers comfort, and receives objects like Haywood's book. When she finally speaks in the last scene, it's the perfect payoff.
Even if you find the subject matter unsettling, it's worth the initial discomfort to see this funny, tragic, in-your-face, and highly entertaining show. Time has not forgotten the Scottsboro Boys, and neither should the Tony Awards come spring.