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"Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys" Review- "An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow" at The Raven Theatre

By Debra Davy

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“Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)”, brought back to the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, after it’s wildly successful run last fall, to be presented through August 27th, is at once a musical, a Greek tragedy and a modern historical drama of epic proportions. Written by Mark Stein, with music and lyrics by Harley White, Jr., and directed by Michael Menendian, it stars nine actors in 19 roles and features Frederick Harris, musical director, as the piano player. The cast, in alphabetical order, includes Breon Arzell, Anna Dauzvardis, Brandon Greenhouse, Tamarus Harvell, Andrew Malone, Semaj Miller, Kevin Patterson, Katrina D. Richard and Charli Williams.

The full cast of "Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys"

The production tells the tale of the tragic case which began in 1931 and finally ended in 2013 with Alabama’s posthumous pardons of the last three Scottsboro boys who had not yet been pardoned or had their convictions overturned. The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a Southern Railroad freight train in 1931. No other crime in the history of the United States produced as many trials, convictions, reversals and retrials- let alone a crime that never occurred! Trials began just 12 days after their arrest; Defendant Haywood Patterson described the scene as "one big smiling white face".

Anna Dauzvardis, Semaj Miller, Brandon Greenhouse, Breon Arzell, Charli Williams, Kevin Patterson

Over the course of the two decades that followed their wrongful arrests and arraignment, the struggle for justice of the “Scottsboro Boys”, as the black teens were called, “made celebrities out of anonymities, launched and ended careers, wasted lives, produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America’s political left”. It also ruined the lives of the young men involved, caused anti Semitism and anticommunism to flare, and ultimately resulted in a set of landmark cases dealing with racism, the right to a fair trial and the effective assistance of counsel. See Powell v. Alabama and Norris v. Alabama,  the Supreme Court decisions spawned by the seemingly endless legal events.

Katrina D. Richard, Charli Williams, Brandon Greenhouse

With enthralling stagecraft, Kat Dennis’ spectacular vaudeville-inspired choreography, Sarah Jo White’s culturally and regionally apt costumes, compelling sound design by Joe Court, and the inspired and brilliantly contrived masks designed by David Knezz, the remarkably deft cast sings, dances and acts their way through the circus that was the complex events of that protracted time. It would be difficult to imagine more cunning, clever or imaginative scenes than those that take place in the courthouse as the actors portray the farce that was the “justice” meted out in these trials. Kudos to set designer Ray Toler, scenic artists Eileen Rozycki and Merje Veski, properties and set dresser Mary O’Dowd and stage managers Cathy Darrow and Kate Masiak.

Foreground: Charli Williams, Anna Dauzvardis, Katrina D. Richard; Background: Brandon Greenhouse, Kevin Patterson, Andrew Malone

The scenes in-between and surrounding the courthouse misadventures, where the human bonding amid common misery and common cause was poignantly developed, were nothing short of mesmerizing. Special thanks here to lighting designer Diane D. Fairchild, for consistently creating believable ambience on the many different settings-jail, courthouse, railroad cars at night. The script is not only a paean to horror- it is also laugh-out-loud funny, sarcastically humorous, redemptively humane. The scenes involving the two accusers, (one of whom recanted, the other who, despite vicious cross-examination revealing her lies, took her story to the grave) are filled with irony, anger, and also understanding-if not forgiveness.

Katrina D. Richard, Anna Dauzvardis; Background: Tamers Harvell

 For two and a half hours, the audience is held captive-as were the nine young men wrongfully charged-by a protracted story, with the multiple personae of the defendants, their lawyers, the judge and the accusers. It is easy to follow the convoluted Court mechanisms due to the factual announcements in-between the scenes, and the relationships are developed poignantly and thoroughly over the course of the play. The actors did such a splendid job of transformation from unmasked defendants to masked and shrouded cavorting performers that it took concerted concentration to separate out just who in this talented cast was transformed into whom. All of the actors could and did adopt their characters like second skins- one memorable cast member used sleight of hand! The music- both original and chillingly adapted  familiar tunes like “Oh Susanna” was wonderful and seamlessly incorporated into the piece.

Brean Arzell, Semaj Miller, Andrew Malone

This “play” is highly recommended- don’t miss it!

For tickets to “Direct From Death Row:The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)”, and all the great plays at The Raven , go to  Raventheatrecompany website


All photos courtesy of Dean La Prarie

Published on Aug 04, 2016

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