An Appealing Musical About Appalling Racism

April 15, 2010



Susan Stroman’s new musical may be under the radar, but it’s a political powerhouse. The Scottsboro Boys, now at the Vineyard Theatre near Union Square, tells the true story of nine black youths who were wrongly accused of raping two white girls on a train. It happened in the Jim Crow south in 1931, and after many trials in Alabama, they still weren’t set free. Two of the boys were only 13.

As with The Producers, Stroman has a way of stirring up fun under the most catastrophic circumstances. I wasn’t sure about the lite song-and-dance stuff, but I realized that the story would be unrelievedly horrible if it didn’t have some cartoon characters.

Like Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein, this Kander-and-Ebb musical has a ludicrous kind of humor. In this case it makes the horror of racism palatable, so that we can sit through the cruelly absurd story. It reminds us of how many people are in prison. That is prison like behind bars, but also the prison of people’s minds when they believe the received notions of racism. Learning about the Scottsboro Boys makes one deep

ly ashamed to be American. And yet, on the other side, deeply amazed and proud that we now have a black president.

Though the Scottsboro Boys was an appalling episode in American history, it makes an appealing Kander-and-Ebb musical, with book by David Thompson. The cast was terrific. As Hayward Patterson, the most defiant of the group of nine, Brandon Victor Dixon was so moving in every scene. Tapper Kendrick Jones, with his sunny face and lanky body, dances in the “electrified” number—that’s when the youngest boy has nightmares that he is forced to dance around the electric chair. Only Stroman could turn a nightmare like that into a sparkling (and sparking) dance routine. As that youngest boy, Cody Ryan Wise was outstanding—sensitive, brave, completely convincing. I want to see what he will do next.

And I want to see where The Scottsboro Boys will go next. Sadly, it’s closing this Sunday. With Broadway’s new openness to stories about race (Memphis, Ragtime, Fela), this would be a welcome addition.



Pictured: Kendrick Jones (center), photo by Carol Rosegg, courtesy Scottsboro Boys