Raven’s “Direct from Death Row – The Scottsboro Boys” – Minstrels in White Face Entertain and Shame

Full cast

 

Before there was Ferguson there was Emmett Till.  And before there was Emmett Till there were the Scottsboro Boys

 

Full cast

 

These were the poster boys of the heavy price African-Americans have paid for walking, talking, riding trains while Black—or just being while Black.  They didn’t know each other before they all shared the fate of hopping the same rails and later being accused by two female train hoppers of raping them. 

 

(left to righ) Katrina A Richard, Charli Williams, Brandon Greenhouse

 

Their cause was championed or exploited, as you want to see it, by the Communist Party.  The southern juries that convicted them again and again were unrepentant. 

 

Kevin Patterson as Haywood Patterson

 

Their ordeal went on for decades and ruined their lives, along the way giving the nation a few legal precedents via Supreme Court decision related to the case.

 

(left to right) Katrina D. Richard, Charli Williams, Kevin Patterson, Semaj Miller

 

How inspired of playwright Mark Stein to tell most of the Scottsboro Boys’ tale through the boys themselves donning white face masks and putting on a Vaudeville Show to re-enact their victimization.

 

(left to right) Anna Dauzvardis, Semaj Miller, Brandon Greenhouse, Breon Arzell, Charli Williams, Kevin Patterson

 

Better still, how wonderful the direction by Michael Menendian to unleash the talents of this nine member cast to engage us in re-living the history of nine Black men wrongfully accused of raping white women, fellow hobos on a train. 

 

Katrina D. Richard (left), Anna Dauzvardis (right)

 

The talent of this cast – as they move in and out of white face masks like a minstrel show in a photographic negative–is so engaging that it only allows the inherent tragedy of this shameful moment in American history to sneak out now and then. 

 

(left to right) Tamarus Harvell, Semaj Miller and Anna Dauzvardis

 

 

But when the sorrow, the rage, the injustice come out from the Vaudevillian shadows, they take quite the bite out of you.

 

 

Mask maker David Knezz epitomizes the creativity of the entire production.  For some of us the similarity to the Southern ‘ol boy prosecutors face (Semaj Miller as General Knight) to the iconic Nixon mask that you would see not only in the US anti-war movement but worldwide in decades past was particularly striking.   

 

(left to right) Charli Williams, Anna Dauzvardis. Brandon Greenhouse

 

Actually, they were all great and the transformations of the actors donning the masks even greater.

 

(left to right) Breon Arzell, Semaj Miller, Andrew Malone

 

For regular Raven fans or others who like their theater best as a heart warming story told with feeling, read this accolade as a warning.   Seamless is not the word you’d have for this script.  It’s breaking new ground and comes with rough edges that even this most able cast can’t smooth.  Even enthusiasts for experimental theater may feel that this production at times misses the mark.

 

Pianist Frederick Harris with Anna Dauzvardis and Katrina D. Richard

 

How interesting that Raven Theatre breaks its mold with this play.  Usually we can expect very straightforward narrative tales by the Raven, often classics that have been produced many times over the decades.  Here instead we see a work that is above all cutting edge. 

 

Now through November 14.

 

Raven Theater

6157 North Clark, Chicago

 

For tickets call 773 338 2177 or visit the Raven Theatre website .

 

 

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