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Kander & Ebb’s ‘Scottsboro Boys’ by PTC (4th review)BY: Dan Rottenberg 01.31.2012
What do the Scottsboro boys have in common with Sacco, Vanzetti, Alfred Dreyfus and Neil Ferber? All were innocent victims of the justice system— and none of them was nearly as interesting as the heroes and villains of their respective cases.
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.
Scottsboro, we have a problemDAN ROTTENBERG
In March of 1931, following a fight between black and white youths aboard a freight train in northern Alabama, a white posse arrested nine black teenagers whom they found still on board. The posse also found two white female mill workers who— either in response to a question or on their own initiative, and perhaps to deflect attention from their own embarrassing presence there— claimed they had been raped by the black youths.
In doing so the two women tapped into a prime article of faith in the segregated South: the threat posed to the purity of white womanhood by supposedly savage black males. This notion, ridiculous as it may seem, was sincerely accepted by white Southerners who genuinely believed themselves threatened by the black underclass— just as, say, such business titans as Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan Jr. sincerely believed that their mighty enterprises were threatened by an international Jewish conspiracy, and just as many Americans today believe our own nation is threatened by a global Islamic conspiracy. And of course the irrational white fear of black people persists today, not just in the South but even among otherwise enlightened Northerners, including some of my own friends and relatives.
So the two women’s testimony jibed precisely with what all white Southerners had been led to believe would happen if young white women were placed in unsupervised proximity to young black men. Small wonder, then, that the nine black teenagers were quickly tried, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime that they not only hadn’t committed but that hadn’t even occurred. Most of the nine “Scottsboro Boys,” as they came to be called, wasted their lives away in prison; all were permanently traumatized by the incident.
Tom Lehrer’s solution
But John Kander and Fred Ebb have something more ambitious in mind with The Scottsboro Boys. Their ingenious conceit is to tell the Scottsboro story in the form of a 19th-Century minstrel show, in effect painting the old Southern justice system as the exercise in buffoonery that it was. What we have, then, is a 20th-Century American tragedy performed in the 21st Century in a theatrical form that originated in the 19th Century— the sort of brilliant idea that we expect from great theater.
The American minstrel show, which dates from the 1840s and survived almost into the Civil Rights era, was itself an ingenious creation of, by and for white society. On the one hand, it exploited the best black music and humor— all those rousing cakewalks, spirituals and jive jokes that slaves developed as an alternative to going mad. On the other hand, minstrel shows enabled white actors to don blackface, shed their white inhibitions and kick up their heels as they couldn’t do with, say, a wordsmith like Shakespeare.
White man’s burden
Most important, the minstrel show and its vaudeville successors reinforced the white myth that all those happy darkies were probably better off in slavery and/or second-class citizenship: After all, they had fresh air, no responsibilities and catchy music from morning ’til night, while uptight whites grappled 24/7 with “the white man’s burden.”
The Scottsboro Boys makes the best of these traditions while discarding the worst. The cakewalk music, the struts and dances are infectiously reminiscent of Gottschalk and Joplin. Kander’s lyrics are often inspired (in the song “Jew Money,” a prosecutor wonders aloud to the jury, “With all their gold, I just can’t see/ Why some of it should not belong to you and me”). Instead of white actors in blackface, we have black actors playing whites (and even black men playing white women).
The uniformly first-rate production by the Philadelphia Theatre Company becomes a joyous cartoon, except when it isn’t supposed to be joyous. But after the first 15 minutes or so, the essential flaw in The Scottsboro Boys becomes glaringly apparent, to wit:
A travesty of justice may be endlessly fascinating and infuriating, but victims of injustice aren’t necessarily interesting in themselves, especially when they have nothing to do but wait in jail from one trial to the next.
Sacco, Vanzetti and Dreyfus
The execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s was a monumental injustice, but Sacco and Vanzetti themselves were simply pathetic (as Bartolomeo Vanzetti famously acknowledged). Ditto for Neil Ferber, the wimpy furniture salesman who was framed by Philadelphia police and nearly executed for the mob-related Meletis killings in 1981.
And of course the Dreyfus case in France had its heroes (Picquart, Zola, Clemenceau, even Lucie Dreyfus) and its villains (Esterhazy, Sandherr, Henry), some of whom have inspired books and movies. (My own favorite is Picquart, a Catholic anti-Semite who nevertheless refused to back down— even at the risk of jeopardizing his army career— when he discovered evidence that the Jewish Dreyfus had been framed.) But the unfortunate Captain Alfred Dreyfus was never notable for anything he did— only for what was done to him and for him.
So it was with the Scottsboro Boys. Their lives were taken from them, which is indeed a tragedy. But the real actors in their story— the sheriffs, lawyers, judges, politicians, journalists and activists who made their case a global issue— functioned outside the prison walls. By shining its light exclusively on the victims, The Scottsboro Boys misses the drama in their story.
Still, give me two hours of cakewalks and you’ll have me hooked. As Paul Simon put it in One Trick Pony (albeit in a different context), I am after all a white man. ♦
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