Monday, April 19, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys—an uncomfortable reminder and a dramatic mindbender

It’s out of keeping with my cranky and mostly-political persona to do favorable theater reviews, but I’m making an exception in this case.

The Scottsboro Boys is an unlikely musical comedy about an American tragedy. It's playing off-Broadway. It deserves to be on Broadway.

In March of 1931, there was a fracas on a freight train between young groups of white and black “hobos” who were using what was then a popular means of travel among those hordes of broke and unemployed Americans. The free-for-all led to the arrest of nine teen-aged black youths on charges of rape, based on the dubious accusations (and later on, the highly incredible testimony) of two young white women who were also hobos on the same train.

The nine "Scottsboro boys" were initially sentenced to death. Their kangaroo court trial and conviction became a cause celebre, taken up by northerners, initially including the American Communist Party.

There were appeals, reversals, retrials, more reversals, and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case—and on and on. In the end, the Scottsboro Boys escaped the death penalty, but justice was nevertheless denied and the system did not work.

All this hardly sounds like the stuff for singing, dancing and comedy. But the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the music and lyrics, and David Thompson who wrote the book, pulled it off, just as Kander and Ebb did with similarly tragic and ironic material in the musical Chicago.

To be sure, the play has its historical (or at least interpretive) flaws. Not least among them is that it paints Samuel Leibowitz, the New York lawyer who defended the Scottsboro boys after the first trial, as something of a legal hack who advised Haywood Patterson to plead guilty in exchange for immediate parole. Patterson had such formidable strength of character that he refused, choosing instead to finish his life in prison.

But Liebowitz, having seen the intractability of the racist legal system in Alabama at the time, was probably doing the best anyone could under the circumstances. He was acting as much as a hostage negotiator as a lawyer. He got as many of the Scottsboro boys out of prison as he could and saved the rest from the electric chair, no mean achievement for that place and time. In fact, one accounting describes his cross-examination of one of the obviously fabricating rape victims as “merciless.”

But this is a musical comedy after all, and a mind-blowing one at that. An anti-racist spectacle, it uses as its primary conceit an ancient racist convention—the minstrel show. In further twists, blacks play not only blacks but also whites and white women. and, in an end-of-show number, the black cast plays whites who are playing blacks. Many in the cast have multiple roles.

It all comes off as a challenge not only to force us to remember America’s long history of racial injustice, but also as a nervous-making kind of Cuisinart chopper-dicer-blender of our own racial assumptions, good, bad or otherwise.

I was particularly impressed by the performances of Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon, each of whom played a variety of roles, and Julius Thomas III who played Roy Wright, the 12 year old facing the electric chair, with such utter conviction that one could see the terror in his eyes from several rows back.

Which is not to say that the performances of any member of the cast was anything less than impressive. For example, Brandon Victor Dixon gave the character of Haywood Patterson, the prisoner who refused to plead guilty and walk free, with a completely convincing mixture of rage and dignity. Christian Dante White and Sean Bradford several times made the transition from terrified black youths to lying white tramps and back again, and had me believing it. Sharon Washington, the only woman in the cast, provided a haunting presence as "A Lady." John Cullum, the only white actor, (you may remember him from the TV series Northern Exposure) pulled off his own multiple rules with perfection.

I take it as a good omen that Cullum was in this off-Broadway show. His last off-Broadway appearance was in Urintetown, a musical that deservedly made it to Broadway.

If you live in new York or you're planning to visit New York any time soon, you can order tickets online here.

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