I don’t often give a positive review to a show that makes me cringe.
But “The Scottsboro Boys,” recounting a sorry piece of the U.S.’s racist past in not just musical form but as a minstrel show, fulfills theater’s highest calling: to tell an unforgettable story that induces the audience to think and talk about it afterward.
Along the way, it shocks, horrifies, moves and even amuses.
The story, narrated by the Interlocutor (Ron Holgate) starts in 1931, when the Depression forced many to ride the rails in search of work. The Interlocutor is flanked by Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) – typical minstrel characters who love corny jokes – and aided in the telling of this tale by The Boys (James T. Lane, David Bazemore, Shavey Brown, Clinton Roane, Clifton Oliver, Eric Jackson, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson and Clifton Duncan).
Here’s the history: Nine Southern black youths between 13 and 19 were on their way from Chattanooga to Memphis when they were pulled from the train on suspicion of starting a fight with a group of white boys.
Two white girls - Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (played in drag by Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) – were also caught hitching a ride; in order to avoid a prostitution charge they accused the Scottsboro boys of rape, setting in motion a six-year series of three trials (two were set aside on procedural violations; all resulted in guilty verdicts, despite the recantation of one of the women) which ruined the lives of nine innocent American citizens.
Doesn’t seem like fodder for a musical, does it? But this is just the sort of thing John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “Kiss Of The Spider Woman”) sought out for musical story lines.
With a book by David Thompson, directed and brilliantly choreographed by Broadway veteran Susan Stroman (“The Producers”), “The Scottsboro Boys” is in its West Coast premiere through June 10 at The Old Globe.
The show has had a checkered career. It did well enough off-Broadway in 2010 that it transferred to the Lyceum Theatre, where it attracted political protest objecting to the minstrel-show format. It also did not sell well. Nonetheless, it
was nominated for 12 Tonys. That it was shut out for awards may have something to do with that cringe factor – or evidence that we still have work to do.
Stroman was inspired by newspaper reports likening the courtroom atmosphere to a minstrel show. She just decided to take that idea and flip it. Beowulf Borfitt’s set design adopts the typical minstrel show setup: a group of chairs in a semi-circle; in this case they are moved around by the boys to form a train car, a jail cell, or whatever set is needed. The series of three cockeyed “picture frames” (nicely lit in varying ways by Ken Billington) remind us that something isn’t quite right here.
The script does not flinch from its primary topic: racism, bald, uncompromising, at times difficult to watch. In the second trial, New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (JC Montgomery) speaks for the Boys; that he is Jewish adds anti-Semitism to the racism already under consideration.
But along with the horrifying and painful, Stroman gives us energy in dances reminiscent of the times: cake walk, tap, ragtime, all done expertly. And Kander and Ebb’s songs contribute to the story, particularly Haywood’s “Make Friends With The Truth,” Ruby’s jaunty “Never Too Late” and the Boys’ poignant “Go Back Home.”
The cast is uniformly fine (and versatile; several play multiple parts). Clifton Duncan does much of the heavy lifting as Haywood Patterson, 18 and illiterate when he entered jail, but taught to write by Ray Wright (Clinton Roane), another of the Boys. Patterson would eventually write about his experience in “The Scottsboro Boy.”
But here, he is angry and uncooperative, which makes his experience even less pleasant. Duncan is big and has a baritone voice to match; he could probably take on any of the pencil-necked cops he deals with, but we all know what that leads to.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is sad, moving, horrifying and funny in a way that only black humor can be. This audacious co-production of the Old Globe and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre is a must-see.
“The Scottsboro Boys” plays through June 10 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park.
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
For tickets call (619) 234-5623 or visit HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.