The case of the Scottsboro Boys is one of the most disturbing and distressing miscarriages of justice in US history: in 1931, law enforcement officers in Scottsboro, Alabama, pulled nine young black men from a Memphis-bound locomotive after learning of an altercation between the black men and a group of white men hoboing on the same train. Two white women also on the train then falsely accused the black men of having raped them, presumably to avoid being arrested for prostitution. The series of trials that ensued over the next half decade, during which the black defendants were systematically and repeatedly denied due process, resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing a defendant’s right to a competent defense. Yet despite multiple appeals five of the nine young men were eventually convicted of the crime and sentenced to harsh prison sentences.
Given the history it tells, you might expect that the musical The Scottsboro Boys would be no easy thing to experience. That’s both true and not true. True because the musical confronts a difficult history of racism through a form – minstrelsy – that’s guaranteed to make perceptive viewers squirm with discomfort and, perhaps, some dismay. Not true because the REP’s energetic production, sensitively adapted from Susan Stroman’s original staging by director Tome Cousin, is thrillingly performed.
The telling of the story is framed, throughout, as a minstrel show, featuring the standard characters Mr. Interlocutor (Marc Moritz – the only white actor in the ensemble), who serves as a kind of director or master of ceremonies, and Mr. Bones (Billy Mason) and Mr. Tambo (JR Whittington), the joking clowns. But unlike traditional minstrel performances, which trafficked in stereotypical and degrading portrayals of African Americans, here the tables are turned and the mockery is aimed at racist Southern whites, with black actors caricaturing white “types.” This produces some complicated effects. On the positive side, it not only puts the power of representation in the hands of the black characters, but also allows the production to find humor in and produce entertainment out of what is otherwise an unrelentingly depressing story. Yet because Mr. Interlocutor is white, and because he often seems to be commanding the other characters to do parts of the minstrel show against their will, the form of the musical also replicates the very power dynamic it seeks to expose and condemn in its content: in other words, throughout much of the musical the black characters seem – like the historical figures they represent – at the mercy of a white “master.”
As such, several of the “minstrel acts” can produce some dizzying cognitive dissonance. Take, for example, the musical number “Electric Chair”: is it okay to be entertained at the sight of three young black men spasmodically tap dancing the nightmare of execution by electric chair? What if they dance as beautifully and virtuosically as actors Joseph Fedore, Steven Etienne and Scott Kelley do – does that make the fact that their characters seem to be doing so at the behest of two “white guards” (played by Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo) and one actual white man (Mr. Interlocutor) any easier to swallow?
Likewise, when the minstrel players depict the civil rights lawyer from New York who took up the Scottsboro boys’ defense as a “carpetbagger,” it’s clearly meant to show that Southern racism extended to Jews as well as blacks, and that the discrediting of the defense counsel by means of xenophobic caricature was a factor in the gross miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Scottsboro nine. But does knowing that make it any easier to listen to one black man, parodying a Southern white Attorney General, menacingly counsel another black man, dolled up as a dimwitted white woman, about the perils of taking “Jew money”?
Four days after seeing the show on opening night, I’m still chewing on these, and other, contradictions and complications in the musical. I think that’s a good thing. The Scottsboro Boys takes the matter of representation seriously, challenging its audience to face some ugly and discomfiting truths not just about the historical event it depicts, but also about the impossibility of representing racism and prejudice without reanimating their effects and reproducing their power to wound.
But those are all thoughts that came largely after seeing the production, which is so theatrically satisfying, and which moves at such a swift pace, that there is little opportunity to reflect in the moment. In concept and staging the REP version of the musical is modeled largely on the original Stroman-directed production, but with imaginative modifications that give the production its own originality and vitality. Britton Mauk’s scenic design features a large backdrop stretched on a wooden frame, like a trampoline on edge, with “The Scottsboro Boys” stenciled across it like the advertisement for a vaudeville show. The stage is further framed by a set of large wooden beams on posts, as in an enormous barn or wooden warehouse, on which long lengths of rope are draped – a reminder of the ever-present threat of the lynch mob. The bare wooden stage gets transformed into the various locales needed for the scenes – train, jail cell, courtroom – by the clever rearrangement of chairs, which also serve to create the traditional minstrel-show semi-circle for the framing numbers. Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design works magic on this set, utterly transforming the color and texture of the backdrop from scene to scene (at one point, I could have sworn it was made of marble) and creating bold contrasts between the theatrical minstrel acts and the more somber historical scenes. Costumes, by K.J. Gilmer, vividly establish the characters, and are used effectively to demarcate the “minstrels” from the historical characters they portray.
In addition to Moritz, Mason, and Whittington, Cousin has assembled a stupendously talented group of young actors to play the Scottsboro nine. Tru Verret-Fleming is powerful as Haywood Patterson, the central character in the story, a man of deep principles who pays a steep price for his unwillingness to lie. Playing the other eight “boys” are Steven Etienne, Joseph Fedore, Jonathan Blake Flemings, Scott Kelley, Tony Lorrich II, LaTrea Rembert, Jared Smith, and Lamont Walker II. All are gifted, athletic dancers, and they execute the exuberant choreography with precision and flair, especially in the spectacular dance number that opens the show and in the vigorously complex “Never too Late.” Vocally, the men of the ensemble meld together beautifully, particularly in “Commencing in Chattanooga” and in the heartwrenching “Southern Days,” which is also the number in the show that most pointedly offers agency to the “boys”/minstrel players/actors.
The emotional heart of the show beats in the person of Ivy Fox, who bears silent witness to the men’s trials and tribulations with an intensity and yearning that is almost palpable. Fox exerts a magnetic pull each time she appears, and the frame story she represents – which becomes clear in the final, emotionally eloquent moment of the play – not only sets the Scottsboro Boys case into further historical perspective, but also connects that case, and its racist legacy, to more recent examples of police violence against black men. The play’s ending offers a sobering reminder that the civil rights movement that was borne, in part, out of the Scottsboro miscarriage of justice still has far too much work to do.