Race and Crime in America when the Scottsboro Boys comes to Broadway

A young man was murdered after being shot in the back while in custody by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police Officer. A young woman was arrested and threatened with a 15yr jail sentence for cutting the line in a store. Two sisters were sentenced to life in prison for being accessories to an $11 robbery. These are not unfair incidents of the justice system from a distant past but within the last ten or more years.

In January of 2009, Oscar Grant, an unarmed civilian, was shot in the back by BART Officer Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. The young woman, Heather Ellis , was a college student when arrested for cutting a line at a Walmart in Missouri in 2007. She could have been sentenced to 15yrs in prison, but received probation and 4 days in jail after her story received public attention and assistance from the local NAACP. The two sisters, Gladys and Jamie Scott , are still in jail while serving 17yrs of their life sentence. These are just a few examples of how race continues to play a role in the in Justice System. Many of these acts of injustice began shortly after the end of slavery as a way to manage and control the newly freed and limit their independence. Lynching also served as vehicle to rule by fear, especially in the South. Telling a similar story is The Scottsboro Boys, a musical opening on Broadway the week of Oct. 31st at the Lyceum Theater. The Scottsboro Boys, part musical, part minstrel show, is the story of nine young Black men put on death row after being falsely accused of raping two young white women while riding the freights at the height of the Depression in Scottsboro, Ala.

You wonder how you turn such a story into a musical much less as a minstrel show? Very carefully!!! But to be fair, no one said a musical had to be happy and lighthearted. Especially at a time, when the majority of plays already on Broadway are regurgitated productions of movies and tv shows. Even films are rehashed tv shows or serialized versions of the last blockbuster. So, its refreshing to view a form of art that uses the medium to challenge, educate as well entertain it’s audience. The Scottsboro Boys does just that. It’s a brilliantly crafted and magnificently performed telling of the real life story of these nine young men fighting for their lives. The credit goes to the production team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, also producers of Cabaret and Kiss of a Spider Woman as well as the amazing director and choreographer Susan Stroman and book writer David Thompson.

With a bare set that illuminates the effectiveness of the light design, you are immediately pulled in from opening scene to closing number. The show opens with a young woman at a bus stop, the only woman in the entire show, who only speaks once and serves a figure of things to come. Of the twelve actors, eleven are all Black, which makes it one of the few largely Black productions on Broadway. Nine of those actors, play the Scottsboro boys, two of which also play the two white women who accuse them of rape. The other two men play a variety of characters including two stereotypical minstrel performers as well as white racist police, prison guards and lawyers. The always, talented John Cullum, and the only non-black performer, plays the Masters of Ceremonies to the Minstrel Show as well as a Judge and the Governor of Alabama. Each actor gives life to the once voiceless men who tell their own story as the case drags on year after year. And although each dramatization of these men were incredible, the standout performance belongs to Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, the de facto leader and oldest of the nine young men. The other standout of the show, is director’s Stroman’s use of twelve to thirteen chairs that serve as prison, freight car, set of the Minstrel show and courtroom. Never have you seen such an imaginative use of chairs in a Broadway production. But, not every creative decision has connected with the audience or even the critics. Using a minstrel show as backdrop for the telling of this story has proven controversial and even has turned some folks off. The minstrel, in this scenario moves way beyond the buffoonery and stereotypes of that time by using satire to explore as well as condem these caricatures. The men who portray the young white women avoid the over exaggeration of women normally seen with Tyler Perry’s Madea character but create a sly caricature of them. Actually, all the white characters portrayed by black actors are caricatures, similar to the portrayal of African Americans during the height of the vaudeville and minstrel circuit. There are also challenging caricatures of Jewish Americans, which also reflect commonly held beliefs about them. It’s a commentary on the way we see each other and a reversal of believed stereotypes. The entire production is a walking, breathing commentary on race in America, crucial at a time when the lack of real talk about race is fueling long held hatred and assumptions about each other in this country. The Scottsboro Boys is an invitation for more intergenerational and interracial dialogue, so we can be the America we tell the world we are.

This is what art should be, challenging and unnerving! If you want to sit in your comfort zone and be dulled into a warm and fuzzy existence then there is plenty out there for you. But, we are and can be more than that. So much of the media already believes that the American public doesn’t have the capacity to absorb and digest complex ideas. The Scottsboro Boy is just that, a musical that shines above the noise, a dark, complicated and even entertaining tale wrapped in a bow for all to see.

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