Review: ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, November 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm.

People of color are making a much needed resurgence on Broadway. In The Heights, Fela! and August Wilson’s Fences are all critically acclaimed, Tony Award-winning productions. Now, The Scottsboro Boys, which opened last night at the Lyceum Theater in New York City, further proves that the stage is meant for diverse stories.

The Scottsboro Boys musical tackles a horrific time in American history. In short, the Scottsboro Boys were nine Black teenagers who were wrongfully accused of raping two White women in 1930s Scottsboro, Alabama. In the end, through several trials, only a few of the Scottsboro Boys were released and most of their lives ended in tragedy.

As an African-American Studies major in college, I am extremely familiar with the Scottsboro Boys and was curious to see how the show would function as a musical. Written by a White theater team, the production is set as a minstrel show, another subject with which I am all too familiar. Sadly, minstrel shows were some of the earliest forms of American theater, featuring Whites and Blacks performing in blackface with storylines that were based on outlandish stereotypes.

The Scottsboro Boys story told through a minstrel show? Some will be uncomfortable with the adaptation of such a painful chapter in history performed via a medium as racist as minstrelsy, especially considering the creators of the production are all White. The musical is written by David Thompson, music and lyrics are by Kander & Ebb (the forces behind Cabaret and Chicago), and directed by Susan Stroman. The question –  is it appropriate for Whites to make a Broadway musical set in a racist old-school theater tradition? In one of the last scenes, several of the cast members appear in blackface, something I have never seen in person. The Latina next to me gasped, “Oh, my God,” as the men danced in the creppy horror of archaic blackface, white lips and top hats. I have yet to decide if the blackface was necessary; yes, The Scottsboro Boys is in vaudeville style, but it’s also 2010.

Hearing the word “darkies;” dialogue in which White characters say they are a “pale, prim, rose,” dancing around electric chairs; and musical numbers that playfully sing of lynchings (complete with a silhouette of a lynching) was jarring. Is the terrorism of Jim Crow a source of comedy? Sure, this is satire and the intention is to make the audience uncomfortable, but all too often, the tone of the musical depicted Jim Crow too jovial. Could The Scottsboro Boys have been more effective as a dramatic play similar to Fences?

The audience will have to decide if minstrelsy is an appropriate way to tell one of the most grisly moments in American history. As a person of color whose grandfather was raised in the Jim Crow South, my emotions were mixed with the evocations of Amos ‘n’ Andy. At times, I felt like I was in a scene from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.

Outside of the theater, I met Julian Bond, the former chair of the NAACP. I asked what he thought and he explained that his Black friends who saw it disliked it and his White friends loved it. But, Bond stressed he loved it and was not offended. Well, if Mr. Julian Bond gave the stamp of approval, then something was done right.

Politics aside, The Scottsboro Boys is a polished, soulful, unique and powerful stage show. This is a production that is solely about the performances.  While it’s a challenge for nine performers to get a moment to shine, Joshua Henry, who bears a striking resemblance to Derek Luke, was the lead as the rebellious Haywood Patterson, angry at the system for wrongfully jailing him. His solos were commanding, channeling the likes of Paul Robeson with his robust voice and commanding presence.

Many of the actors played multiple roles. Christian Dante White (who was also in The Wiz) was one of the Scottsboro Boys and also delivered a hilarious characterization of Victoria Price, the woman who accused the boys of rape. White easily bounced between characters, belting out songs with a massive range. His performance alone was Tony Award-worthy. Two-time Tony Award winner John Cullom effectively plays the interlocutor.

But, if you want to talk about performing, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon morphed into more characters than I can count. They were both magnificent in voice, dance and jaw-dropping acting. Their performances eased the uncomfortable racial horrors of the Scottsboro Boys story. They possessed the sensitivity required to properly show the journey of the characters. One of the creators, David Thompson, recently told The Wall Street Journal, “I can’t tell an African-American actor what it means to experience racism. But what I can do is dignify that reality by creating a story, a narrative, that’s honest.” He added, “My responsibility is to write characters or situations that are dramatic and compelling, and during the rehearsal process bring the actors into that collaboration to make sure what we’re creating is as authentic as possible.”

This inclusion of the actors is what redeems the heavy racial material. McClendon and Domingo were unmistakably brilliant. If they are not acknowledged in some way for their performances, then that’s a stage travesty. I was Googling their names as I was walking out of the theater.

The Scottsboro Boys is a show I would recommend. You might be offended, you might not, but you will surely be moved. You won’t walk out of the theater complaining about the memorable music, the passionate actors, the sharp set design or the riveting performances. You might debate the politics — but isn’t theatre supposed to provoke thought? Not all performances can be escapism. Most importantly, The Scottsboro Boys digs up a neglected portion of history that every American should know.

The Scottsboro Boys is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City. Click here to purchase tickets.

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