The Scottsboro Boys—A Scorching Tale of Racism

December 10, 2010

This musical hit me hard. It hit everyone hard. The packed house at the Lyceum Theater gave it a standing, roaring ovation, not because we were happily entertained, but because we learned about an episode of colossal racism in our history.


So why is this Kander and Ebb musical closing tomorrow? Maybe because it’s too heavy for Americans to own up to—even though the minstrel-show framework lightens the load.


I had seen the production when it was at the Vineyard Last spring (click

 for my blog on it then). But now it’s even more powerful. Here’s the true story it tells: Nine young black men (the youngest was 12) riding a train in the South were accused of raping two white girls in 1931. After many trials over six years, four were freed. The others’ lives were ruined; so were those of the four who got out.


This show demonstrates that it wasn’t only the hideous racism of the South that destroyed these innocent boys, but also the South’s hatred of the north. A Jewish lawyer from NYC volunteered to defend the youths, and the white Alabama community hated him as much as they hated the blacks. The jury repeatedly judged them guilty even after one of the girls recanted.


I think it’s the height of bravery for Susan Stroman to bring this to the stage. Maybe the only way of doing it was to use the idea of minstrelsy, which is historically appropriate, to alleviate the story, which otherwise would have been unbearably painful.


Like Jerome Robbins, Stroman connects each dance, each phrase to the story. With the first song and dance being so joyful and buoyant, it’s hard imagine how tragic the story will become. As the crushing tale unfolds, the songs, vaudeville-style jokes, and dancing help us get through it. But for me, the cartoon characters who represent the white authorities were over the top, and I wonder if the musical would have been more successful if it just concentrated on the story.


As dismal, humiliating, and shocking as the story is, there was beauty in the portrayals and the songs. Each of the nine actor/dancers threw themselves into the role: carefree, bewildered, scared, rageful, hopeless, wistful, hopeful (book by David Thompson). Finally, a ray of light for the future of Civil Rights comes in the form of a woman who plays a Rosa Parks figure. (It’s true that Rosa Parks had attended a rally to protest the treatment of the Scottsboro Boys when she was 19.)


I had a lump in my throat at the end and couldn’t holler my appreciation for the first few curtain calls.