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By Sylviane Gold
Susan Stroman taps minstrel shows’ legacy. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Scottsboro Boys.
Apart from maybe witchburning, it’s hard to think of a bygone popular entertainment as reviled as the minstrel show. With its blackface performers jumping around the stage as grotesque African American stereotypes—jolly slaves, grinning mammies, strutting dandies—this form, which flourished from the 1840s well into the 20th century, deserves every bit of the scorn heaped on it and its derivatives in film (think Stepin Fetchit), on television (think Amos ‘n’ Andy), and in general (think Aunt Jemima).
But for all its repellent aspects, and the undeniable stain it left on America, the minstrel show’s mix of song, dance, and storytelling is a direct ancestor of the Broadway musical. And the very same skits that so shamefully lampooned black Americans also gave white audiences their first taste of black music and dance, however adulterated. And later, when minstrel shows began employing black artists (in blackface also, like their white counterparts), minstrel performers blazed the path that ultimately brought mainstream success to African Americans from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Bill T. Jones.
The discomfiting contradictions of America’s minstrel heritage are being embraced on Broadway this month with the opening of The Scottsboro Boys, the new Kander and Ebb musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. An off-Broadway hit last season at the Vineyard Theater, the show uses the disgraced vehicle of the minstrel show to recount one of the most disgraceful miscarriages of justice in American history. For those not up on the disturbing story, the Scottsboro boys were nine black teenagers who in 1931 were pulled off the freight train they were riding near Scottsboro, Alabama, after a brawl with white youths. They were arrested and, under lynch-mob conditions, accused of rape by two less-than-virginal white women who had also been on the train. The case generated headlines, demonstrations, and years of appeals and convictions, despite overwhelming evidence that the nine were innocent. “The idea to use a minstrel show seemed perfect,” Stroman says, “because it’s a racially charged story and a racially charged art form.”
Although Stroman is probably best known for returning musical comedy to Broadway in 2001 with her hugely successful, Tony-winning staging of The Producers, her career is studded with darker work, including two Kander and Ebb musicals, Flora, the Red Menace and Steel Pier, that deal with the 1930s. But here she has taken on the most harrowing material possible. Stroman knew about the historic forces that made the Scottsboro case a long-running cause célèbre. She was familiar with the historic tap moves, soft shoes, and social dances of the period, as well as the minstrel show’s standard arrangement of a semi-circle of performers flanked by two “end men” and led by an “interlocutor.” But she also realized that telling the story of the Scottsboro Boys would require more than what she could gain from research.
“When I speak to the actors,” she says, “I tell them this is their story, and I cannot speak to them about race. That’s what they needed to contribute to the story—it’s really theirs.”
Colman Domingo, who won an Obie for the off-Broadway production of Passing Strange, portrays one of the end men, Mr. Bones, who takes on the roles of multiple white bigots. Domingo came to Scottsboro Boys knowing the outline of the historical events but knowing only that the minstrel tradition “was something that no one wanted to deal with. The blackface was too painful to look at.”
“But,” he adds, “this was popular entertainment for 100 years, you know? Why? We had to really examine it and go to those dark places to see what was making people laugh. And we had to make that positive and take ownership. We’re taking it back, just like taking the N word and using it in a different way. The original idea of the minstrel show was white men putting on blackface; now I’m a black man putting on not whiteface but the form of the racist white man. We black men are able to portray the white men who destroyed these boys’ lives—we are seeing it through our eyes.”
Like several of the other cast members, Domingo is not a trained dancer. Stroman spent the first days of rehearsal teaching the cast the basics of the choreography. “I did a vocabulary of all the steps that would be appropriate for 1931 and all the steps that would be appropriate for them throughout the evening,” she says. “They do snake hips, cakewalk, soft shoe, ragtime steps. The guys who are nondancers are quite proud of what they’ve accomplished—the show makes it look like there’s nothing they can’t do.”
That’s partly because of the way Stroman adapted the choreography to their strengths, says Domingo. He considers himself a physical actor, but he was terrified. “Here I am working with one of the great choreographers—I’ll never be able to do this. I never thought I’d learn to tap. I’m learning things I never knew I could know.”
Audiences also learn from the powerful show, not just about the Scottsboro Boys but about an important precursor of musical theater. Stroman makes no apologies for it. “Fred Ebb said if we didn’t make this story entertaining, no one would listen,” she says. “He was right.”
Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.