The Scottsboro Boys opens with a stage set featuring three upside down U–shaped structures. The first is placed exactly straight. The following two become increasingly off-kilter. Beowulf Boritt’s design underscores the many questions about how to frame history, artistic vision, and the truth.
With music and lyrics by Broadway fixtures John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, the play takes on a series of challenges in presenting the Depression Era story of the nine African-American teens who were falsely accused of raping two white women in the state of Alabama.
Not an easy task. Their multi-faceted solution to mixing creativity with historical and political insights? Ratchet up the ante by employing the culturally volatile format of a minstrel show to give the account. Players are seated in a semi-circle, bookended by two stock characters, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. The master of ceremonies, the Interlocutor, is at the center. Award-winning theatrical veteran John Cullum inhabits the role. His character fluctuates between oozing white Southern civility and acid menace as he interacts with his black performers. “Sing it!” shifts from kindly request to threatening order. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, in addition to delivering comic lines that can be squirm-inducing for contemporary audiences, also portray a variety of characters (“white men is their specialty”) ranging from Sherriff Bones to Samuel Leibowitz—the New York Jewish lawyer who would take over the defense case.
There is high voltage energy in the air from the moment the actors come running down the theater aisles and jump on stage to perform their first number. But it doesn’t take long before the import of the events about to be recounted takes precedence. “What story are we going to tell tonight?” the Interlocutor is asked. When he replies, “The story of the Scottsboro Boys,” he is queried, “This time, can we tell the truth?”
The musical numbers advance the story line of how the nine boys riding the rails from Chattanooga to Memphis, in search of work, found themselves unjustly accused of a crime. Within five days, they were indicted by a white grand jury. Pleading not guilty, all except the youngest, Roy Wright, were convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The boys chose the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the Communist Party, to handle their defense. The courtroom actions would drag on for years, while the men languished in prison. The appeals included a hearing in front of the United States Supreme Court (Patterson v. Alabama).
Kander and Ebb draw from a full range of musical genres. In the “Minstrel March,” motifs recall the Old South through banjos and the ever-present tambourine—which punctuates not only melodic riffs—but dramatic points as well. Starting with the traditional minstrel show call to arms, “Gentleman Be Seated,” the Interlocutor instructs his troupe to “flavor us with your song.” “Commencing in Chattanooga” begins the tale introducing us to Haywood Patterson (the dynamic Joshua Henry), who becomes the pivotal figure of the story.
There are pure lyrical melodies, such as “Go Back Home,” which relates the yearning of the boys to return to the normalcy of their previous lives—before the nightmare began. In “Southern Days,” the same luscious nine-part harmonies are turned on their head as they sing a tune of days gone by. The Interlocutor remembers the melody “rising up from the cotton fields.” He suggests to his minstrel men, “It wouldn’t hurt if you smiled a bit.” The group continues, “How the sounds and sights come back to me. Like my Daddy hanging from a tree.” The Interlocutor responds indignantly, “Here now, wait a minute, I don’t remember that part of the song.” “Shout,” a foot-stomper, captures the exhilaration and hope that maybe justice will be served. One of the play’s recurrent themes, truth—in all its incarnations—is highlighted in the acerbic number “Make Friends with the Truth.” It combines Broadway razzmatazz with a wow punch line.
In “the grand finale,” the glamour of a national cause célèbre is contrasted with the fates that befell the forgotten men when they were finally paroled and released. The individual traumas are punctuated by the shake of the tambourines. Heywood states, “After twenty-two years, I died in jail. I wrote it all down in a book. I told the truth.”
Jubilantly announcing, “A happy ending, just like I promised,” the Interlocutor introduces “everyone’s favorite—a cakewalk,” which originated on southern plantations. When masters hosted social gatherings, slaves dressed in costumes replicating the garments worn by whites, performing a dance of mimicry. The best dancers were rewarded with a prize, often a piece of cake. During this temporary exchange of roles, the control always remained securely with the Master.
By the conclusion of The Scottsboro Boys, the Interlocutor’s domination has been destabilized. His call, “Gentleman, be seated,” is ignored and overturned; his rein over the narrative has been lost. The unidentified woman who has been hovering on the edges of the action—as witness, mother, and guardian angel—evolves into a definitive persona. She becomes the coda to the piece.
Shaken, exhilarated, and stunned by the play, I was interested in the process behind combining musical theater with a painful piece of history. I spoke with David Thompson to discuss how he and his colleagues viewed their ambitions for the play, and scattered negative response to their approach. “The story is bigger than any one reaction,” he told me by telephone. “The fact that we’re dealing with [this story], we have to honor it, but we still had to bring it to life.” He referenced the viewpoint of Kander and Ebb who believed, “We have to entertain an audience if we are telling a tough story. [We have] taken them to a dangerous place and crossed over a line. They’re thinking, ‘Whoa, this isn’t what I expected.’” He added about the team, “That is their genius.”
Thompson’s belief about audiences was, “You’re going to go away with something that’s going to change you.” He noted, “It takes awhile to sort it out.” Pointing to one of the play’s recurrent themes, Thompson said, “So much of what we’re dealing with, now and in the future, is that we don’t understand the truth, but stick to our opinions. It’s easier to believe a lie, than to understand the truth. It can be any social issue.” He concluded, “That’s what has driven me on this piece. How do we tell the truth?”
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.