The Scottsboro Boys

Review by Tulis McCall
(3 Nov 2010)

There is more talent and class per cubic inch on this stage than on many of the other theatres combined. And it is a haunting horrible tale that these men tell. This is a brave production.

The shameful aspects of The Scottsboro Boys begin 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.

So - how about a musical about racism, rape and Jim Crow? Lest you think that a silly suggestion, let us not forget Chicago, Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman. If anyone is going to handle the seamier side of life with some toe-tapping tunes - it would be these two.

The storytelling is given to us as an old time minstrel show (another shameful chapter). 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 is a brilliant opening. With John Cullum (who, as always, is glorious) 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 relies, "I've never done this before."

David Thompson's script then becomes problematic. He roles out the story of the Scottsboro Boys in quick-step. Boys on train. Train stops. Boys accused of rape. Testimony of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (brilliantly portrayed here by Christian Dante White and James T. Lane) 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.

Short shrift is given to the seamier side of what happened to these men in prison. While four of them were released, the others stayed in prison until well into the 1940's. Haywood Patterson became a product of his environment and violence became his tool of survival. Although he escaped from prison and made it to Detroit (no mention of this) he ended up dying in jail once again - 21 years after he was first arrested. This is an ugly story that had no light at the end of the tunnel.

The script also takes an odd turn by focusing on Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry) 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, a few of which could be cut or given to other actors. This is, after all, the story of a group of people. The other odd choice is the addition of a female witness whose presence is unexplained and distracting.

The bravery comes from the choice of subject matter and the format of the tale. We are still a racist collection of folk - even here in New York. The lie we live comes in the fact that we white people continue to pretend all that racist stuff is over as we attend the theatre, watch television, go to the movies and see 99.9% white people entertaining us. Our politicians are white, with the one obvious exception. Our CEO's are white. But Oprah is a brand, and we like to think she makes up for what we choose to avoid looking at. This country was built on the backs of slaves. How many friends of another race do you have? More than 10? Probably not.

Scottsboro Boys points our gaze directly into the nest of snakes that this story is. It is a scab on an ugly wound, and this show, with its minstrel music and blackface makeup, picks at the scab until it draws blood. It is a show that is not easy to watch, and for that reason should be seen.

(Tulis McCall)

"Suffers from a problem of monotony, as the scabrous comic tone spreads like shellac across almost every sequence."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Isn't perfect, but it's worthwhile."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

A thrillingly inventive and entertaining night at the theater. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be moved. What could be more Broadway than that?"
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"It's still smashing, and it's still shocking."
John Simon for Bloomberg

"Sets a high bar for Broadway musicals this season."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage

"A mixed bag of arresting, entertaining and disappointing."
Robert Feldberg for The Record

"While it's bound to divide audiences, spotlighting injustice this way makes for tremendously illuminating theater."
Roma Torre for NY1

"The unerring expertise in writing, staging, design and performance that makes this show so exciting is a striking reminder how musicals crafted well in the classic Broadway style remain more satisfying than the newer rocky horror likes."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

"This bold musical keeps you tapping your feet while it socks you with an emotional punch to the gut."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

"Stronger, tighter and even more impactful than the already distinguished show on display last spring."
Steven Suskin for Variety

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - NY1 - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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