Review by Tulis McCall
11 Mar 2010
Anyone up for a musical about racism, rape and Jim Crow? Lest you think that a silly question, let us not forget Chicago which has just passed the 5,000 performance marker and features music by Kander and Ebb. If anyone is going to handle the seamier side of life with some toe-tapping tunes – it would be these two.
The shameful aspects of The Scottsbsoro Boys begins with its title. In 1931, nine young black men, traveling by boxcar to parts unknown in the south, were accused of raping two white women who were also traveling box-car style. The ages of the defendants ranged from 13-19. Because they were black and male, they were simply boys. And because they were accused of raping white women, they were little more than bodies standing in line waiting for their turn at the scaffold. This was actually considered mild punishment for the day. Over 20 years later Emmett Till, 14 years old, would be beaten and murdered for reportedly whistling at a white girl in Mississippi.
As the show opens, the exuberance and hopefulness of these men overflows the stage and spreads out into the audience. These men can handle Kander and Ebb’s Harmonies and Susan Stroman’s choreography with style. It looks like whatever happens, we are in good hands.
And we are – but the whatever happens is guided by a script that tries to do too much too fast and ends up giving us a watered down version of the story of the Scottsboro Boys that also includes historical inaccuracies. I am all for condensing history when you need to create a good story, but in this case the condensing took some of the oomph out of the tale.
The storytelling is given to us as an old time minstrel show (another shameful chapter). With John Cullum (who, as always, is commanding through sheer force of experience) as our Interlocutor, we are welcomed and promised a tale of excellence. He is joined by Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) who will play many roles in the telling of the tale. What tale? The Scottsboro Boys. “Can we tell it the way it really happened? Can we tell the truth?” one of the men asks. “Of course,” replies the Interlocutor, to which Mr. Tambo replies, “I’ve never done this before.” David Thompson’s text then focuses on the story of the testimony of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (brilliantly portrayed here by Christian Dante White and Sean Bradford) who accused all 9 young men of raping them. It is a clearly fabricated tale, but no matter. A little dab will do. Once the accusations are made, the “trial” is arranged and The Scottsboro Boys are put in jail to wait their trial and hope they aren’t lynched before they appear in court.
When, in fact, the defendants were not always tried together, Thompson keeps them together as a unit. Over the next several years we do get a smattering of leagaleeze with references to the Supreme Court reversing the convictions citing lack of due process, the presence of the lawyer Samuel Leibowitz from New York, the involvement of the Communist Party and the reaction of the citizens where the court was located. It is a little like speed dating.
The story also takes an odd turn by focusing on Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) as the main character. Mr. Patterson wrote a book about his experience and this may be why. But it is a singularly odd choice to have the story of 9 individuals revolve around one man, who is in no way more memorable than the next except that he has most of the songs, several of which could be cut. There is a lot of talent on that stage. The music and story could have been spread among these actors with excellent results. This is, after all, the story of a group of people.
When I was a Junior in high school my U. S. History teacher, Mr. Whitcomb, assigned us a theme paper. We had to meet with him to discuss our topic. On the afternoon in question I told him my topic: Abraham Lincoln. He very gently suggested that I might want to refine my choice. Over the next few weeks he taught me how to do it. I ended up with a paper that dealt with a very specific thread of a very specific piece of legislation.
He taught the microcosm method of writing. The Scottsboro Boys uses the macrocosm approach and forgets that we can only take in such an enormous story one bite at a time. Just about the time that we are getting the hang of the tale, it is over. A dramatic but overly simplified conclusion leaves us affected but not nearly as much as we could have been. Maybe next time.
And there should definitely be a next time.
"Often feels like a good-works version of “Chicago”."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"There's much to commend."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"If you see one show this season, make it 'The Scottsboro Boys.' It's as simple as that."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Director and choreographer Susan Stroman, .., is in top form here.
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"A potentially brilliant musical slips through the creators' fingers."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"A mixed bag, but an adventurous and stimulating one."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A staggeringly inventive piece of musical theater." & "Its execution pretty much pitch perfect, and its entertainment value ... of the highest order
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Riveting material and toe-tapping songs shot through with wry humor"
David Rooney for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...