It’s one of the most important legal cases in American history, a story most Americans know nothing about, and a story that continues to echo on our city’s streets.
On the Playhouse on the Square stage through February 19th, The Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel-style musical based on yet another dark chapter in American history, is also a must-see story that entertains, that challenges, and that leaves a lasting impression.
In 1931, nine Black teenagers, aboard a freight train from Memphis to Chattanooga looking for work, were pulled off the train in Scottsboro, Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women, and were quickly sentenced to death in the electric chair. In an often-repeated farce of legal injustice, the men spent the 20 years in and out of the prison system, the case sparked an international uproar, produced two landmark U.S. Supreme Court verdicts, and gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement.
The musical premiered Off-Broadway in 2010 and after its official Broadway premier later that year was nominated for 11 Tony’s, including Best Musical (it won none). The Scottsboro Boys was produced from a book by David Thompson, and came to life from the legendary, creative brains of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, the team that brought to the musical stage the difficult subjects of Nazi Germany and murderers on death row in the shows Cabaret and Chicago, respectively.
With The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb brilliantly frame the show as a minstrel with dashes of old Vaudeville, where stereotypes, caricatures and broad costumes and gestures allow the actors to express in song and dance the biting absurdities and cruel and infuriating injustices playing out in the lyrics and the narrative.
Historically, minstrels shows were performed in “blackface,” where white and later Black entertainers painted their faces black to caricature of African Americans with exaggerated and dangerous racial overtures and behaviors that perpetuated racist attitudes. Playhouse comments that “audiences should note the production features the art form of minstrelsy in historical context and in commentary of social injustices during the period. Minstrel is the now taboo American art form of highly emphasized stereotypical representation of Black people. Playhouse on the Square’s production of The Scottsboro Boys will not perform in blackface.”
The minstrel framework created by Kander and Ebb allows the performers to not only showcase their musical and comical talents, but the broad satirical style of the minstrel heightens the tragic absurdity of the boys’ circumstances, the numerous trials and appeals the group ultimately endured, the harsh conditions of the Alabama prison system, and strips naked the lies and blatant racism of this continuing American condition. Make no mistake, the show is as challenging as it is entertaining. For the viewer, smiles and laughter arrive with the awareness of the darker realities being portrayed, bringing a level of culpability to the audience.
But in an equally brilliant move, instead of white men performing in blackface, all of the characters in The Scottsboro Boys (except one, the character The Interlocutor) – the teenage prisoners, the white policemen, the white prison guards, even the white women – are all performed by male Black actors. It puts the minstrel show into a mirror, becoming a cathartic comeuppance of sorts for the actors, allowing the characters to flip the stereotypes on their heads and ultimately, to drive their own destinies despite their circumstances.
Playhouse’s production – led by Director Jared Thomas Johnson (Pass Over) and a diverse creative team that includes Music Director Tammy Holt (Indecent) and Choreographer Emma Crystal (The Gospel at Colonus, Sophisticated Ladies) – does not disappoint in taking on this controversial interpretation with the always-relevant subject. And with a cast that shines from all corners of the stage, baritone Justin Raynard Hicks (Ain’t Misbehavin) is transcendent as Haywood Patterson, one of the persecuted nine, representing the conscience, heart and soul of the story.
The lighting, scenic, and sound designs are pitch perfect, allowing the actors to interact and become a part of their surroundings, as prisoners would. And an ever-present upstage platform that suits multiple purposes, draped in the bunting of the red, white and blue stars ‘n’ stripes, is an ironic reminder of the conflict at the heart of the American experiment.
In interviews and according to the Signature Theatre website, Kander, Ebb and book writer David Thompson have said that they “got the idea of the minstrel show framing device while researching the Scottsboro Boys’ story. David Thompson said (to the Boston Globe) an account from a Northern newspaper sparked their creativity. ‘The reporter said the boys were forced to perform as if they were in a minstrel show, and he described the whole circus surrounding the trial as being like a minstrel show, so we thought, wow, what if we used this very racially charged art form to tell a story that’s about a very racially charged subject? That could be a really interesting way to tell the story.'”
It’s bold move to put the Jim Crow South to musical caricature, but the challenges to the audience ultimately makes an impact that lasts beyond the confines of the theater, especially as injustices continue to play out daily on the streets of our cities, and in light of the mountaintops we as a culture have not yet reached.
For this write-up, I saw Playhouse’s show the Thursday night before the release of the video footage of the beating of Tyre Nichols, when the city felt on edge in anticipation. In comparison to their earlier shows, I do not know if the casts’ performances were any more charged or inspired by the energy of the moment. But the energy was palpable. And in light of the death of Tyre Nichols, the cast of The Scottsboro Boys is dedicating the rest of their run to honor Nichols’ life and use their art to offer collective healing to the Memphis community.
The show runs through February 19th – I wish it could run for many more weeks to come – and it is not to be missed.
Read more about the world of the Scottsboro Boys from Signature Theatre’s website and excellent articles about the show and the case at https://www.sigtheatre.org/scottsboro/