One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white woman in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the new Broadway musical, The Scottsboro Boys, which employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. Much has been written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson and director/choreographer Susan Stroman—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.
Since most theater-goers would probably be unfamiliar with the infamous case as with the minstrel show itself, the show’s producers have included a short, well-written insert in every Playbill. The four page brochure gives context and insight to the Scottsboro legacy.
The staging of the show is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the story to unfold without any unnecessary distractions. Most of the talented cast play multiple roles and they work together as a finely tuned ensemble. The main standout is Joshua Henry as the principled and fiery, Haywood Patterson. Also notable are Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon portraying the minstrel show stalwarts, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. They play a number of outrageous and cartoonish characters that serve to both accentuate and mock this miscarriage of justice.
Director Stroman keeps the movement fluid and pulsating, only lagging slightly about two-thirds through the intermission-less production. As choreographer, she conveys the urgency and tension the nine Scottsboro boys are experiencing.
The score, one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb, while not one of their best still shows them at the top of their game and, as they have done on such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, that they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.
Interestingly, with all the passion and compelling moments on stage there is a more emotional detachment with the characters and their plight. We are not uncompassionate, just the opposite. However, as the action unfolded I found myself as someone looking in, an observer, as opposed to becoming more emotionally involved. Is this a detriment to the musical? Not totally, but a more impassioned connection with the actors could have elevated the production to a different level.
The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and be uncomfortable at times—sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry--but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event.