AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY BECOMES A MUSICAL COMEDY
1931 was a crossroads in American history. With no economic recovery in sight, the Depression had people edgy, and when Americans are edgy, they are discordant. An acrimonious populace is a perfect breeding ground for intolerance. As such, issues that were quelled during the over-consuming, over-spending 1920’s were coming to a head, both socially and politically. Liquor was still prohibited, the party was over, and people were desperate for scapegoats other than bankers to blame for their ills, hence the racial prejudice that blossomed in that era.
By 1931, just as Woodrow Wilson predicted before WWI, Americans forgot that there ever was such a thing as tolerance. While anti-immigration bills were passed, and anti-Semitism was on the rise, it was the black population that really had to watch their backs: The Civil War remained a huge, unresolved sore spot; Jim Crow laws were firmly entrenched; minstrelsy still had an audience in the South; the controversial movement known as eugenics – which studied the methods of improving the quality of the human race, especially by selective breeding – had taken a toe-hold in the country; and D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) gave rise to the “second era” Ku Klux Klan – by 1925, the Klan peaked at over 5 million members.
It was in this fecund atmosphere for bigotry that nine African-American teenaged boys, some simply seeking employment and a better life, were hoboing on a freight train between Chattanooga and Memphis; also on the train were some white males and two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. A fight broke out between the two races, and the white men were thrust from the train. When a posse arrested the black boys for assault, the two girls came forward and announced that they had been raped. After a series of trials, all but one of the boys (ages 13-19) were convicted and sentenced to death. Even after the case went to the Supreme Court twice, and Bates later recanted her testimony, guilty verdicts continued to be handed down, and five of the boys stayed in prison for years, the last one being paroled in 1950.
It’s a compelling, maddening, dark, unnerving and dumbfounding story, one which not only highlights a particularly pernicious miscarriage of justice, but also sheds a light on America’s pattern of both racism and accusation-as-guilt. The most astounding thing about the Scottsboro Boys’ story – with its frame-ups, rushed trials, all-white juries, and lynch mobs – is that it has become an original, audacious, and exhilarating new entertainment called The Scottsboro Boys. John Kander, Fred Ebb and librettist David Thompson compacted an intricate series of trials into a one-act musical (1 hour, 45 minutes) that utilizes the antiquated blackface minstrel shows to dramatize a sensational piece of history.
Boys began with a successful off-Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre, and then transferred to Broadway, where it should never have played. I can see how the subject matter would keep tourists from attending the show – which closed after 49 performances. Even with toe-tapping songs, amazing dance sequences, and both humorous and searing performances, it recounts a gloomy event with a gloomy outcome. The result, however, is hardly depressing – in fact, it’s such an inventive and original work of art, that it lifted my spirits. Although I had one major issue with the show (more on that later), I left the Old Globe, where Boys plays before heading to A.C.T. in San Francisco, both inspired and satisfied.
The inimitable Ron Holgate plays the Interlocutor (a minstrel troupe’s white emcee) who banters with the “end men” – low-comedy types named Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery). Nine other black performers are also members of the troupe; they portray the prisoners straight, but also play other characters (white and black alike) in a minstrel fashion, such as Victoria (Clifton Oliver) and Ruby (James T. Lane). The minstrel sequences, thrillingly staged by Susan Stroman, are hardly shocking; the bug-eyed, cakewalking, outlandish caricatures of the shuffle-and-grin style are used to reenact parts of the trial. While everyone agrees that racial stereotyping can be highly offensive, it’s OK to admit that this verboten style of entertainment is extremely amusing; in fact, Minstrel Shows created the framework for Vaudeville.
The music undeniably sprouted from the hands of John Kander. While the vamps and bouncy ragtime rhythms may be somewhat derivative of Cabaret and Chicago, his score masterfully manages to be a wholly original pastiche of Depression-era music, written with a knowledge of period style that is unparalleled in musical theater today. The current productions of Hands on a Hardbody at La Jolla Playhouse, and Nobody Loves You next door at the Old Globe, suffer largely because the composers are incapable of writing memorable, exciting, fresh songs; the country and rock-infused scores of these and most all new musicals don’t even come close to the self-contained songs in a Kander-Ebb musical. The Scottsboro Boys is a fitting tribute to Ebb, who died in 2004 while writing the show.
My only issue with the musical, and it’s not a tiny one, is that it feels as though the creators were trying too hard to honor the wronged men, crafting the show in such a way that the audience is robbed of making their own decisions about this historical event. Coating the show in minstrelsy may be politically incorrect, yet I sensed political correctness and self-righteousness. I can imagine the mountains of material that bookwriter David Thompson had to pore over, but his dramatization, oddly enough, lacks clarity and feels safe. He used shouting matches between prisoners in their jail cell to hurriedly spew facts about themselves, but they never truly related to each other. Facts such as that one of the boys carried a gun on the train, and that another became a turncoat to his fellow defendants, are glossed over, as if to stress that these poor souls were innocents merely looking for a job. That may or may not have been true, but the drama on stage is lopsided towards victimization when it needed some kind of accountability: What about that brawl that started the whole mess? What caused blameless black boys to hurl white boys from a train in the rural South?
There is an enormous amount of fascinating information from the trials that is not in the show, such as other witnesses’ testimony, physical examinations of the girls who cried “Rape,” and the American Communist Party (which largely financed the appeals). As captivating as the musical is, I found myself wondering at times if this subject matter would not have resounded better in a play.
As America faces issues eerily similar to those in 1931, namely the economy and racism, The Scottsboro Boys is most timely, and definitely should be seen. Because of its self-consciousness, this very good musical misses the opportunity to be the “Next Great American Musical.” But a highly-polished, extremely diverting, and great production of a very good musical is still a far cry better than the majority of crass, uninventive, forgettable and ridiculous new musicals of the last 25 years. I would much rather have The Scottsboro Boys as is than no Boys at all.
photos by Henry DiRocco
The Scottsboro Boys
Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe in San Diego (Regional Theater)
scheduled to end on June 10, 2012
for tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE visit http://www.theoldglobe.org/
The same production appears next at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in San Francisco
opens June 21 –
scheduled to end on July 15, 2012 EXTENDED to July 22, 2012
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org/