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Kander & Ebb’s ‘Scottsboro Boys’ by PTC (1st review)BY: Marshall A. Ledger 01.28.2012
This first-rate production of an ingenious musical appropriately recalls an American racial nightmare of the 1930s. Unfortunately, in its preoccupation with laughing at racism it overlooks or, worse, lampoons some of the real heroes of that Alabama tragedy.
The Scottsboro Boys. Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb; book by David Thompson; Susan Stroman’s original direction and choreography recreated by Jeff Whiting. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through February 19, 2012 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 985-0420 or www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.
The memory of injustice, or:
The Scottsboro Boys presents a constellation of racist events through the prism of a minstrel show. It’s unlikely musical fare, given minstrelsy’s historical role as a low-comedy enactment— and thus a promotion— of degrading black stereotypes, mostly for the enjoyment of a white culture that was fundamentally hostile to blacks.
The play deals with the arrest and conviction of nine African-American teenagers on false charges of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931, and then the long legal, social and personal aftermath that ensued for years thereafter.
The young men had been riding a freight train that originated in Tennessee and wended through Alabama, where authorities seized them and accused them of rape, based on charges by two white women, who had also been on the train. One of the women later changed her testimony, but too late.
Alabamans expected swift justice. The trial began 13 days after the arrests and concluded three days later, death sentences included. Appeals and retrials, however, extended a rather standard racist incident into a historic event involving several local trials and two appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court over the next six years.
The legal ordeal left the nine with pretty much wrecked lives, American jurisprudence with two new principles— the right to effective counsel and the right of minorities to sit on juries— and the rest of us with a legacy of shame. And now, a musical.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production is first-rate in every respect. The scenery is spare— three increasingly cockeyed arches through the depth of the stage, an unmistakable symbol of the misguided American establishment of the time.
The stage furniture is sparse and versatile: Open-frame chairs and boxes are arranged to indicate (variously) an electric chair, a courtroom setting, a bus’s waiting platform and seats, a governor’s office, and (when supporting a long sturdy board) the cars of the freight train (with the minstrels’ tambourines set sideways against their legs, as the wheels).
This is the set-up of the original Broadway production in 2010, created by that show’s director and choreographer, Susan Stroman. The minstrel show takes place within that framework.
Everyone in the play’s cast is African-American with the exception of the “Interlocutor” (Ron Holgate), who asks his troupe to perform the saga of the Scottsdale boys. “Can we tell it like it really happened?” one of his performers asks. “This time, can we tell the truth?”
The interlocutor seems baffled, as if previous accounts hadn’t been true. Nevertheless, he assents.
Thus assured, the audience is treated to remarkable singing, dancing and acting, notably from the Philadelphia native Rodney Hicks (who played in the Broadway production) and Eric Jackson. The chorus plays it straight, yet on a frown or verbal reprimand from the Interlocutor or from one of the Alabama officials, they drop into Stepin Fetchit-type exaggerations of white expectations of blacks.
The contrast between the reality of the events for the Scottsboro nine and minstrelsy’s carnival way of telling the truth of their story is wrenching. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb have played similar disparities against one another in other musicals: Cabaret, where the lively rhythms of a 1930s nightclub in Berlin clash with impending Nazi horrors; and in Chicago, where vaudeville provides slaphappy entertainment against a dark theme of social castoffs hopelessly seeking fairness in a corrupt judicial system.
Railroad as metaphor
The Scottsboro Boys adds yet another element. The train— a historic fact in this tale of catastrophe— is devastatingly symbolic.
Trains once represented industrial progress, unrestrained potential, the freedom of the open road. In the opening song, the teenagers celebrate their journey, which they presume will take them to new jobs, fresh adventure and better lives. Instead these nine African-American kids are, well, railroaded. Kander and Ebb needed no artistic license; the train’s many connotations are built into our language.
I approached The Scottsboro Boys wondering how I could watch a musical about such a tragedy. Parade, a Hal Prince production of 1998, was based on the lynching of Leo Frank; it received generally positive reviews but had a short run (123 performances, including previews).
The 1997 Italian film Life Is Beautiful received eight Oscar nominations and won four awards, including best foreign-language film and best actor. But it drew strong protests for dealing with the Holocaust in a comedic manner (David Denby in The New Yorker called it “a benign form of Holocaust denial”).
By comparison, The Scottsboro Boys encountered protests that one producer says helped close the Broadway run after only 78 performances, previews included. It was nominated for 12 Tony awards and won none. (The Book of Mormon had 14 nominations and won nine awards— a clear indication, I think, of what Broadway officialdom wants us to find agreeable.)
The “truth,” as rendered in The Scottsboro Boys, isn’t entirely fair because the actual case produced some heroes. The Scottsboro sheriff, mocked in the musical (“When it comes to justice, it’s just us!” he clucks), actually prevented local folk from lynching the nine.
The judge at the second trial, James E. Horton Jr., rose above the prosecution’s expectations and the jury’s sentence of death to order a new trial, based mostly on his doubts about one accuser’s testimony.
And the defense attorney after the first trial, a New York lawyer named Samuel Leibowitz, risked his life, saw his own ethnic pride slurred (the prosecution claimed that the young men’s legal support came from “Jew money”), and secured the release of four of the nine. To be sure, this release came at the expense of a legal compromise— a move that The Scottsboro Boys treats as a corrupt and dishonest act almost equal to the original travesty of justice, yet which the actual Leibowitz accepted, as he noted at the time, “with a heavy heart.”
You can’t leave this play without a heavy heart, made only more acute by director Susan Stroman’s statement that the Scottsboro tragedy is a “uniquely American story.”
Her phrase implicates all Americans in the country’s history of racism. Even more, it holds us all responsible for its persistence, even if we’ve never passed through Alabama and wish to disassociate ourselves from everything that ever happened there, up to and including that state’s harsh new immigration law, passed only last year.
The Scottsboro boys are all dead, but their ordeal continues. Only now it is ours.♦
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