Beowulf Borrit on “The Scottsboro Boys,” Theatre, and Process

On Dec. 12, after 29 previews and 49 regular performances, The Scottsboro Boys closed its Broadway run.  Ironically, the production is being recognized, six months later, with twelve Tony Awards.  When I originally wrote about the play, I opened with a reference to the stage set as underscoring “the many questions about how to frame history, artistic vision, and the truth.” Beowulf Boritt received recognition for “Best Scenic Design of a Musical” for work that used minimal elements to convey both symbolism and depth.

We spoke about his thoughts on the political aspects of the play, challenging theatre audiences, and process.

How did you get involved with the play?

I was designing a musical called Paradise Found, which Susan Stroman was choreographing and co-directing with Hal Prince — so she and I had met on initial meetings for that project. I think Doug Aibel, the artistic director of the Vineyard theatre, had suggested me to her for The Scottsboro Boys.  Luckily for me, she liked the idea.  I had known and admired her work through my whole career, and was thrilled to get a chance to work with her. Obviously Kander & Ebb are legends, and I knew David Thompson‘s recent work with them. It was a bit overwhelming to get asked to work with such a group.

What drew you to the material?

I’m pretty passionate about intelligent musical theatre, the kind of shows pioneered by Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, and Hal Prince.  My father is a Lincoln scholar, and my mother trained as an opera singer, so the marriage of a pivotal piece of American history to a Broadway musical was right up my alley. But more than that, I love theatre that has a smart point of view…theatre that explores something more serious than middle class angst, and The Scottsboro Boys delivers that. The story of the Scottsboro Boys doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for a musical, and that tension is part of what makes the show so exciting.

Where you concerned about the potential volatility of using the minstrel show format?

I was thrilled by the show from the first time I saw it workshopped.  I thought the reverse minstrel show format, the post-modern minstrel show where African-American actors played white caricatures, was very exciting. It did make me a little nervous, but all except one of the cast is African-American, and our wonderful costume designer, Toni Leslie James, is African-American…so I figured if we were on thin ice they’d let us know. Obviously the whole show is full of intentionally horrible racist imagery, and it’s sensitive stuff to portray on stage.  But it’s all in service of the story’s larger message — pointing up the horrible miscarriage of justice that occurred in Scottsboro.

How did you come to your vision of the stage set?

Stroman started the process by saying she wanted a very simple set, basically the chairs of a traditional minstrel show circle, and little else. She gave me the assignment of creating all the locations we’d need for the story, out of those pieces. It was a bit overwhelming.  [I needed] a train, jail cells, courtrooms, a couple buses, and several large musical numbers. I started by trying to figure out the stage surround. I always start by grappling with the themes of a show, and how they can be expressed visually. That’s always more interesting to me that simply creating a stage set of a location. I saw the story as a sort of minstrel show in purgatory; the boys were stuck as ghosts, retelling their story. I found some images of animal skeletons partially buried, but with ribs reaching out of the earth, and it felt like the musical to me.  The Scottsboro story is an ugly chapter of American history, one we might prefer to remain buried. My initial set ideas were a sort of skeletal vaudeville proscenium, but bleached like bones and in decay, so that the lathe and beams — the bones of the architecture — were visible. Stroman, quite rightly, thought it was too literal.  But it led me to our eventual set, three skeletal frames thrust out of the ground. I always thought of it as creating the bare skeleton of a theatre.

What was your process?

I started with scale models of the set, and scale models of the chairs. I began working out how the chairs could interlock to create shapes that would suggest a train, or a jail window, and so forth. Once Stroman signed off on the basic approach, I had two chairs built by a scenery shop in Jersey City. They were made of a very light weight, hollow, aluminum tubing that was both very strong — so actors could dance on them, and very light — so they could be easily moved. Stroman began working with them. She had two weeks in the studio with her assistants, and she began to map out the show and how she would move the chairs from one configuration to the next. As she developed and discovered that, we had more chairs built. Ultimately, all the chairs were built, and all are slightly different from each other to serve their specific function. Chair #1 locks together with Chair #6 in an exact way, so that it’s strong enough to support five men balanced on a plank laid atop it, and so forth. The actors had to learn how each piece fit with the next, and Stroman choreographed it so it all looked effortless and magic.

I saw the tambourines, chairs, and planks as building blocks for the actors. How did the costume design, choreography, and your set design work together? The result seemed very collaborative.

Yes. This same scenic idea, a world built of chairs, would feel clumsy and dumb with a less deft  director. Stroman knows how to move bodies and objects in space so they feel effortless, and inevitable. I knew exactly how one scenic look changed to the next, but she controlled the audience’s focus through lighting and composition.  So, when a scene shift started, you’re looking at a guy lighting a cigar —and the next thing you know the train has transformed into a jail cell. You know you’ve just watched it happen, but you have no idea how it happened. For me as a designer, getting to play with a seemingly simple scenic idea with a director/choreographer of Stroman’s ability was a real treat…and a lesson in how to stage a musical!

When I first saw the set, the three frames spoke to me as symbols of how a story can be framed and viewed in different ways.  The gradation of a straight frame to an off-kilter frame. Was that part of your intention?

Yes.  The frames were a symbolic rib cage to me on one level, but I never expected or wanted an audience to think that literally.  They were intended to show a world off kilter. The story is about nine boys whose lives were destroyed by a simple selfish lie told by two white girls, and I wanted the set to show that dislocation. The first frame was completely square and straight, but the two upstage of it tilted further and further to the side, as if their foundations were collapsing. Additionally, all the planks on the stage floor were off square by ten degrees. It was very slight, but it made the world subtly askew. Interestingly, the dancers unconsciously aligned themselves to the floor being 10 percent off square.  In the early rehearsals, Stroman was driven nuts, because the performers couldn’t keep their dance formations on center, and they’d always drift off by 10 percent!  I was worried that I had made something impossible for them to adjust to, but they learned how to mentally adjust so that they could play straight even on the skewed floor.  I don’t know that any audience even registered that the floor was askew, but I do think it subconsciously added to the experience of the world knocked awry. I think a lot of what a set designer does functions on this level. Most people don’t register how the subtleties of the visuals are effecting their perception of the story, but they do have a powerful subliminal effect.

There is a sequence in the play with shadow puppet imagery.  Can you speak about how you and the team developed that?

Stroman had this fascinating — and horrifying — book from the 1930’s about how to stage an amateur minstrel show.  It was sort of a guide for community theatres. As shocking as it seems to us now, it was a very popular form of entertainment until — disturbingly — recently. I’ve seen pictures of people from my parents’ generation in blackface minstrel shows in the 50’s, when they were children. This was not in the south, but in the supposedly ‘enlightened’ northeast. Anyhow, shadow plays were a popular feature of minstrel shows.  So we decided to do the song “Make friends with the Truth” with this device. I love the brilliant use of 19th century imagery in Kara Walker‘s art, the way she uses the imagery as a sort of visual double entendre, and that informed our choices for the shadow images. They are funny, but disturbing, yet recognizable to most of us. The show continually makes us laugh at uncomfortable images. Then we feel bad for laughing.  But I think it’s a way of condemning the racist imagery, accepting that it exists, and hopefully diminishing it’s potency.

What hopes do you have for the future of the play? Do you see the twelve nominations as validation that the show was groundbreaking in its approach, with superior elements of acting, music, direction, scenery, and choreography?

Mostly, I hope that the play will have a future life. I feel like it will be meaningful a hundred years from now, and honestly, of the 300-some shows I’ve designed, there are only a few others I think may stand the test of time. The Tony nominations were a very nice surprise. I don’t think any of us expected them, certainly not twelve, but its very gratifying to get the recognition from the theatre community. I guess, as a historian’s kid, I always think [about] what will people think of this show after I’m dead. I hope that the issues it discusses are ancient history by then. But the American racial tensions are so deeply woven into our national identity, that the pessimistic part of me thinks we may still need stories like this one hundred years hence, to remind us of the mistakes we’ve made as a nation — so we don’t repeat them.

This article originally appeared on the website cultureID

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