The Genius that is The Scottsboro Boys:  A Sunday Sermon Masquerading As Burlesque

How daring is the theatrical experience called The Scottsboro Boys?  Very.  In a nutshell, it is genius, and in a very incendiary way.  Sure to withstand the test of time, it is a disturbing work of moral sermoning dressed up as contemporary musical theatre.  Both disturbing in its comic conceit and infuriating in its detachment, it is reminiscent of “epic theater” of the early part of the 20th century.  It also smacks of the then-vanguard expressionistic styling and anxious-evoking feel definitive of “the modern stage” immediately following the First World War.  So, in the context of the 21th century, The Scottsboro Boys feels strangely nostalgic.

The ghost of Bertolt Brecht haunts every minute of The Scottsboro Boys.  It is the marriage of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Strindberg’s Miss Julie gift-wrapped in the very American musical form called the minstrel show.

Given the fact that this musical form is now long-ignored (and best forgotten) — and looked upon as a stain to the modern American psyche — it is best to recall for the reader the elements of the theatrical form.

“Minstrelsy” reached its peak as an entertainment form in the early 19th century.  Following the American Civil War, such “light” entertainments were used in the North as a means of healing the American conscience.  The American South, on the other hand, was a completely different matter.  In the South, it retained its derogatory mechanism of “keeping blacks in their place.”

The minstrel show consists of a number of known, stock conventions.    First, there is the chatty “Interlocutor,” usually the white straight-man emcee who serves to guide the audience throughout the show.  In the Los Angeles production, the Interlocutor is effectively played by Hal Linden, who is dressed in a comic-white-gentleman getup and looking spot-on as Coronel Saunders.  In the epic theatre convention, the Interlocutor serves as a somewhat detached commentator.   Second,  there are the performers —  usually black —  who sit on stage in a semi-circle, bracketed by the two end-men, “Mr. Bones” (played by Trent Armand Kendall) and “Mr. Tambo” (played by JC Montgomery).  In the epic theatre canon, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo serve as our classic chorus, detached from the main story at hand but off-handedly commenting on the goings-on by jokes and general buffoonery.   Third, there is the infamous “Jim Crow shuffle,” and the emasculating drag show.  Lastly, there is the necessary “cakewalk,” the traditional closing dance number often performed in blackface as the culminating curtain call.

Which such incendiary elements, it is easy to see why the minstrel show soon faded completely from favor with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement.  Nonetheless, it is historically important to note the importance of this theatrical form within the context of the American theater today in general, and, in particular, the creator’s use of this theatrical form to construct their emotionally-charged cautionary tale.  After all, the minstrel show format was the root of the historical term “Jim Crow.”  It is now long-forgotten that the first song of the minstrel show was titled “Jump Jim Crow,” and the parodied caricature who sang it later formed the shorthand for the derogatory set of discriminatory laws that served to limit the legal rights of blacks in the American South.

So much for the history lesson.  Similar to the devise used in their hit musical Cabaret, John Kander and Fred Ebb return to an entertainment-stage setting to hold up a mirror to a drowsy and indifferent culture.   Society itself is “asleep at the wheel” as evil runs its malevolent course in the silence and willed-ignorance of another lulled society.  Instead of the pre-Nazi Germany of Cabaret, this time it is the depression-era American South smack in the heart of Dixie, Scottsboro, Alabama.  Teaming up with their old collaborator, David Thompson again joins Kander and Ebb to write the book of this mesmerizing classic.  And taking the helm to bring the ideas to life is the highly-skilled theater director, Susan Stroman, best known for her work in “The Producers.”

The performances of The Scottsboro Boys are excellent.  The entire cast sing and dance well, particularly the Tony-nominated Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, the earnest angry-man role.   The scenic design by Beowulf Boritt is a marvel, minimal and distilled to the basics:  three steel proscenium arch boxes that teeter off-balance, framing the tall-tale performed on stage while giving the viewer a dizzy sense of going down a Wonderland rabbit hole; chairs, planks, and tambourines that serve as train, jail, and courtroom; and near the end, a menacing seated-woman shadow projected over the entire back wall, casting a death-poll throughout the entire eerie end.   It reminded this reviewer of the mother figure of Lillian Gish protecting the young in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.  The effect was marvelous.

However, the focus of this review is not so much on the performances and site-specific work at the Ahmanson Theatre.  In the instant piece, this reviewer focuses on the overall effectiveness of the combination of book, music, and staging (to consist of what I term “the authors”) to form this brilliant new work of musical theatre.  It is, as one reviewer rightfully noted, “a precision-guided social endoscopy.”  The work not only lampoons the ideas it raises, it also serves as a dry and edgy critique of the very system it portrays by creating a structure and theatrical construct that not only raises the questions but also effectively propels it into both social consciousness and public dialogue.

Dichotomies abound in The Scottsboro Boys:  white/black; North/South; Christian/Jew; light/darkness; comedy/tragedy; laughter/sorrow; right/wrong.   And throughout the work, the authors ask the most provocative questions.  What is truth?  Can truth be relative?  What is the effect of a lie?  A single lie?  Is God a punishing God, keeping tabs on our wrongs on Earth and righting them on a quid pro quo basis?   Or, if God is a forgiving God, does She right wrongs only in heaven upon our deaths?  These questions run the entire narrative.  With respect to the stage production, the authors ask “does kitsch subvert content, or can it serve to enhance the effectiveness of parable and sarcasm?”  The authors answer this last question with an affirmative to the latter proposition.

In The Scottsboro Boys, the theatrical hijinks and minstrel buffoonery serve as metaphor for a most-discriminatory South.  And a biased judicial system hell-bend on preserving the status quo of white supremacy at all costs.  The time is 1931 to 1937, the period of the numerous appeals of the Scottsboro defendants.  The place is Scottsboro, Alabama — the Deep South during the Great Depression – where the South is still, after almost a whole century, reeling from its defeat in the Civil War and desperately looking to place blame for the then-new economic depression of the country.  As the authors imply, this milieu is eerily similar to post-WWI Europe where the tired populace is still-stunned from the heavy impact of The Great War and looking for an easy scapegoat to blame for the new order.

The nine players are boys really:  two 13 year olds; a 16 year old; two 17 year olds; an 18 year old; and three 19 year olds.  Each one looking for work on the tracks of the American rail system, looking to help their Mamas back home.  Innocent, easily-fearful as conditioned by their respective social class, the minstrel context is a perfect venue for their tale.  Forced by circumstance and societal custom to entertain like performing monkeys, they beg their master-Interlocutor at the start of the play “can we tell it like it really is this time?”  Ah, truth and fable.  Therein, somewhere along that line from white to black is the grey-area of truth.  And the concept of truth and justice, lies and injustice, deeply and painfully resonates throughout The Scottsboro Boys.  As John Kander postulates in his letter to the audience, “How was it possible that a group of innocent boys could be destroyed by a single lie?  Why was it easier to believe that lie than it was to accept the truth?”  He continues, “So, behind the histrionics of politicians and lawyers was the story of nine young African American boys determined to prove that they mattered, as we began to write The Scottsboro Boys.”

Significantly, the nine boys’ real-life legal tribulations resulted in two landmark US Supreme Court decisions.  In the 1932 decision of Patterson v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court held that the nine defendants were denied their Constitutional right to counsel, which violated their Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment.  Then again in the 1935 decision of Norris v. Alabama, the US Supreme Court held that the exclusion of blacks on American jury rolls deprived black defendants of their rights to Equal Protection under the US Constitution.   Shockingly, the Scottsboro Boys’ ordeal would not end until their April 2013 official pardon by the Governor of Alabama, whereby all nine of the defendants were all long-dead, gone, and forgotten.  Sad but true.  I guess the authors of The Scottsboro Boys are trying to right this wrong in their own effective way.  Kudos!

The discomfort of the audience was palpable at the Ahmanson.  Walk-outs repeated throughout the performance.  People laughed — and then stopped short — finding their discomfort in the contradictory feelings of guilt and pleasure from the presentation of a dead-serious topic within the format of the vaudevillian minstrel show.  But discomfort, I believe, was the precise aim of the authors.  I am sure they intended to draw out the audience’s discomfort with how easy, and how often, we (society, the justice system, you name it) find the truth to be malleable in our desire to find the semblance of the truth in what we wish to find.  So, The Scottsboro Boys is a cautionary tale, a Sunday sermon if you wish, masquerading as burlesque.  It demands attention and posits the importance of our continuing dialogue on the topics of truth, justice, pain, hope, and humanity.   Never stop asking.  Amen.

Grade: A+

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Review by Armin Callo