There is a moment toward the end of “The Scottsboro Boys” when their lawyer snaps at the young African American men who have been wrongly convicted of raping two white women, “You’re guilty because of the way you look.” The
theatre goes silent while the characters—and the audience—take in the ugly truth of his statement. The play takes place in the 1930’s but in the wake of current discussions on racial profiling, we can’t help but make connections to the state of racism today. It’s a pivotal moment in a production fraught with controversy that will entertain some, alienate others, and, in the end, hopefully will inspire conversations and move some to action.
The Old Globe has taken a bold step in presenting “The Scottsboro Boys,” a musical retelling of a watershed moment in American racial history. In 1931, nine African American boys were riding a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis. The youngest was 13, the oldest 19. At a stop in Scottsboro, Alabama, the boys were yanked off by an angry posse of white men and charged with raping two white girls who were also riding the train. The Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known, were convicted and all but the youngest were sentenced to death. A series of re-trials spilling into the ‘40’s resulted in a tragic miscarriage of justice including incompetent defense, all-white juries and one of the alleged victims even recanting her testimony. Yet the convictions were upheld and innocent lives were ruined. A national outrage followed with hundreds of thousands protesting in cities throughout the country; the case is often cited as the spark that ignited the American civil rights movement.
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with book by David Thompson and songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the show had a brief run on Broadway in 2010 garnering 12 Tony nominations and stirred a firestorm of debate because of its use of minstrelsy as a backdrop for the storytelling. Minstrelsy is based on racial stereotypes and began with the Jim Crow character as an archetype, with white performers painting themselves in black face and performing what they imagined to be representations of black people. According to Dr. Camille Forbes, UCSD professor of African American literature, “The Jim Crow character was a kind of plantation darky, slow moving and ignorant, a buffoon.” The performers traveled around, entertaining people who had never seen African Americans before and in this way solidified the racial stereotypes. With this in mind, Forbes expressed concern about the appropriateness of the minstrel show format to tell the Scottsboro Boys story: “The minstrel show is not known to be something that can support that kind of gravity.”
So what was in the creative team’s mind in framing the play using minstrelsy as a theatrical device? Writer Kander has said that the impetus came while researching the Scottsboro case and finding it referred to as “a minstrel show” with all the courtroom buffoonery. “What we were trying to do was bring these guys back to life and make it clear that they were real people with real lives which were destroyed by the terrible racial injustice in this country…The form of the minstrel show with its black face and cliché fit right into that.”
For the audience it’s a delicate and uncomfortable balance. On the one hand, the acting, singing and dancing is dazzling. From the opening moment as the actors joyfully careen down the aisles inviting us in for an evening of laughter and song, we are engaged. We meet the nine Scottsboro Boys, young and unsophisticated, the Interlocutor, a classic minstrel figure who serves as emcee, and a score of colorful characters, including sheriffs, lawyers, judges, the two accusing women, Sam Leibowitz, the New York lawyer who represents them throughout their endless ordeal, and The Lady, a silent character who bears witness to all and whom we recognize finally in the end. In a creative skewing of the minstrel show format, all except the Interlocutor are played by black actors.
But this is not a musical you will want to tap your toe to. It is difficult if not impossible to separate the medium from the message. Dr. Nadine George-Graves, UCSD professor of African American theatre, expressed the dichotomy as a “disconnect between the sheer joy we get watching very talented performers singing, dancing and entertaining us” juxtaposed with the discomfiting notion that “we are clapping for the very roots of some of the racism in this country.” She cautions that the fallout from the work minstrelsy does in the form of racial stereotyping can lead to violence and death, citing the Trayvon Martin killing as a modern example.
Whatever your leanings, there is something to be learned from this production. The Old Globe’s pre- and post-performance forums, scheduled throughout the run, can be illuminating. The PBS American Experience documentary “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” provides an excellent counterpoint. George-Graves also suggests checking out Spike Lee’s 2000 film “Bamboozled” for a radical, more accurate history lesson about minstrelsy and race in this country. If, as some believe, theatre can activate change, a good provocative conversation inspired by “The Scottsboro Boys” may be the beginning. The show runs through June 10. For ticket information, visit www.theoldglobe.org.