Monday, November 1, 2010

'The Scottsboro Boys' Puts on a Happy Face

The players, above, portray nine youngsters who were at the wrong place at the wrong time in the Jim Crow south and paid for it dearly. Below, Forrest McClendon as Guard Tambo, Jeremy Gumbs as Eugene Williams, and Colman Domingo as Guard Bones in "The Scottsboro Boys," the musical based on a shameful piece of American history. Leaflets, middle, from the International Labor Defense League called for the release of the youngsters. Show photos by Paul Kolnik. Leaflet photo courtesy of University of Illinois Department of English.


What happened to The Scottsboro Boys?

They were a cause celebre for many years after their arrest in 1931. These nine young Negroes were convicted repeatedly in a series of trials and appeals for a rape that never happened. Four of them were so young (one was not yet 13) that they were eventually released after six years in jail because of their age at the time of the incident.

“The Scottsboro Boys,” the Broadway production on stage at the Lyceum Theatre, is played absurdly as a minstrel show to underscore the travesty that was the plight of these youngsters. They were not lynched so that “Justice could be done,” as one of John Cullum’s characters puts it.

This is not a frivolous musical and its minstrel show framework is not a frivolous choice. ( )

Minstrel shows were the vaudeville of the Reconstruction Era. White men in black face, and later black men in black face, pined for the Old South in sentimental song and dance. “The Scottsboro Boys” replaces the sentimentality and nostalgia with raw and poignant truth. Only JC’s Interlocutor, the ringmaster of our entertainment, wants “ev’rybody to dance a cakewalk.”

The musical numbers from the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Chicago”)move the narrative along at a bracing clip. The boys reveal something of their lives before that fateful trip, during their time in jail, and their trials and – for most of them – after their release. It is a dreadful and tragic tale from beginning to end.

Some of the characters in “The Scottsboro Boys” take on several roles. For instance in addition to Interlocutor, two-time Tony winner JC is Judge and Governor of Alabama. All the white characters except JC are played by the black men in the cast. Christian Dante White and James T. Lane double as Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, respectively – the two who accuse the boys of rape – as well as two of the boys, Charles Weems and Ozie Powell.

Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman helms the production. In “Commencing in Chattanooga” the music and minimalist choreography simulate the lurching freight car carrying the boys, each to a brighter prospect. Their future hopes are soon dashed when the Scottsboro, Alabama police raid the train to quiet a disturbance. The police find Ruby and Victoria, two “Alabama ladies,” who concoct a story of a gang rape to avoid incarceration for prostitution and vagrancy.

Elements of other Kander and Ebb (the latter died in 2004) collaborations are detectable here and there. “Nothing” sung by the strong Joshua Henry (Haywood Patterson), for example, is reminiscent of “Mister Cellophane” from “Chicago.”

Among the fine cast – many of the performers originated their roles last year in the production at the Vineyard Theatre – Forrest McClendon stands out. He takes on a variety of roles, including that of the New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, and a number of stock characters i.e., Mr. Tambo, Lawyer Tambo, etc. He is superb. JH, whose Haywood refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit in exchange for parole, voices the injustice of the Scottsboro trials in “You Can’t Do Me” with power and conviction.

“The Scottsboro Boys” is a dark musical based on a dark reality; it aims to tell an ugly truth in an entertaining and understated way. It achieves this by stirring our passion and compassion and engaging us in history.

Visit for tickets, show times and general information about “Scottsboro Boys.”

Tamara Beck is President, Clean Lists Associates, Inc, an association management firm. And an avid theater-goer.

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