The Scottsboro Boys
The appearance of a new musical by John Kander and Frank Ebb, the famed composer/lyricist team behind such landmark works as Cabaret and Chicago, is a cause for rejoicing. (Especially since Ebb died in 2004.) True to form, the duo’s final collaboration, The Scottsboro Boys, takes a real-life subject that does not seem an obvious candidate for musical adaptation: the plight of nine African American men who were arrested off a train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931 and falsely convicted of raping two white women.
To tell their story, Kander and Ebb (and book writer David Thompson) make a risky move that’s bound to discomfit theater-goers. They set up the lone white actor in the production (John Cullum) as the emcee of a minstrel show, a master of ceremonies whose bitterly ironic opening number underscores the dark double meaning of that term: ”Tonight’s a night of merriment / Of laughter, songs and jokes / I’m host and interlocutor / The master of these folks!”
Yes, the show delivers a history lesson about America’s racist past by employing an array of theatrical tropes that are frankly racist themselves (shuffle-and-jive dance steps, Stepin Fetchit comedy routines, blackface, etc.). The virtually all African American cast plays the Scottsboro defendants in a naturalistic way while employing more stylized, controversial minstrel performance methods to play the story’s white characters: the slutty white women who cry rape, the racist sheriff who arrests and beats the prisoners, and the New York Jewish lawyer who swoops in to defend them in court. As intentionally broad as the performances often are, the actors are terrific — and the effect is to underscore both the horror of the Scottsboro case as well as the ways in which popular culture has reinforced racial stereotyping.
Thankfully, the score is gorgeously and memorably melodic, the duo’s best since 1993’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Kander writes in a variety of musical idioms, too, from the stirring men’s chorus of the railroad song ”Commencing in Chattanooga” to the comic testimonial ”Alabama Ladies” to the wistful jailhouse ballad ”Go Back Home.” And director Susan Stroman stages the production in a strikingly simple fashion, deploying simple straight-back chairs to create multiple settings (a train, a jail, a courtroom, etc.).
I admit that I had some reservations about the show when I saw it last spring at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, but a summer run at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater seems to have allowed the creative team to make some subtle but significant tweaks that have dispelled all of my concerns. For one thing, Joshua Henry (American Idiot) emerges more distinctly as the emotional center of the show: He plays Haywood Patterson, a Scottsboro prisoner who learns to read and write while in jail, escapes at one point, and later writes a book about his experience that would inspire a generation of civil rights leaders (including, notably, Rosa Parks). But more importantly, Stroman and her team have managed to strike the perfect tonal balance for this potentially explosive material, spotlighting the steely dignity and quiet defiance of the individuals on stage. This is the best new musical of the year.
By the time of the gut-punch finale, when the nine Scottsboro prisoners reluctantly don blackface (!) and dance a train step, the ambivalent lesson of the show emerges most clearly: Despite a favorable court verdict, there will be no unmitigated happy ending for these men. Standing against the tides of racism and winning justice will not win them acceptance in society, or a lasting measure of peace. Progress is incremental, and their example will inspire others to make even greater strides. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that underscores the bitter ironies of this true-life story. The Scottsboro Boys challenges us even as it moves us to tears. A
(Tickets: Telecharge.com; 800-432-7250)