The Interlocutor (Hal Linden) of a grand travelling circus “Minstrel March” enters the stage and thanks the audience for coming. After consulting with his co-junior ringmasters Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) the trio decides that the tale for the evening, to be performed along with their company of nine players, will do the story of The Scottsboro Boys.
History tells us that in the spring of 1931, in Scottsboro Alabama, nine Black young men were accused of rape by two white women (“Alabama Ladies”) and promptly sentenced to death for a crime they didn’t commit. Hayward Patterson (Joshua Henry), and the other eight boys, ages ranging from 13 to 19, were “Commencing in Chattanooga”, looking for work when misfortune struck. As the default leader of the group, Haywood steadfastly maintains his innocence and is the beacon of tenacity in the fight for justice for himself and his fellow accused. At the end of their first trial, the men pining for freedom and an end to their nightmare (“Go Back Home”), only to hastily be sentenced to death by an all white male jury.
Following “Make Friends with the Truth,” the Scottsboro Boys receive their first reprieve and a new trial sponsored by Samuel Leibowitz, a New York defense attorney. Ruby Bates, one of the Alabama Lady accusers recants her testimony in “Never Too Late” celebrating the liberating spirit of the truth, but that does not stop the jury from coming back with yet another guilty verdict. From 1931 to 1937, the Scottsboro Boys would be on trial for a crime they didn’t commit; a crime for which only one of them would receive a pardon in his lifetime.
On its face, it’s a really good show. The technical production elements were all well done. The minimalist production design proves to be just versatile enough, while suggesting that this incident could have happened anywhere during this era. The orchestra for this production was too loud throughout. I struggled to hear the lyrics and it was very aggravating.
What I loved about the show: Joshua Henry. Christian Dante White. JC Montgomery. The entire ensemble of the Scottsboro Boys were truly wonderful, committed and utterly delightful to watch.
I liked this show and I didn’t like this show. All my favorite parts of the production were aesthetic. The storytelling apparatus was solid, but the rendering of the story itself left me unsatisfied. Playing out this story through the guise of puppetry and clowning simply felt like framework to make an ugly story palatable. Even as the characters eventually breakout of that framework, it is not, for me, ultimately satisfying to have made this journey that could have been much more poignant if only the points made in it had not been dulled.
One instance I think demonstrates this point is the use of African American actors for the two principle jesters. What is the point of not using white actors, if you are not going for an entirely Black cast. Why not make Uncle Sam (The Interlocutor) Black, so there is no division of perception between the white characters actors play, be it advocate or tormentor. From a story standpoint, I don’t understand the choice.
As an African American woman, if we are going to explore a time and place when we were cruel to our fellow man, the only way to truly examine what happened is to not sanitize it. The presentational nature of the show’s direction is a brave and impressive interpretation, but it falls short of providing the audience with a visceral experience that is the power of live theatre. It’s one thing to understand another person’s pain, but theatre provides a unique opportunity for other’s to get anywhere close to experiencing it as well.
I struggle with the relevance of this play as well. As an African-American woman in the 21st century, what am I supposed to do with this story. In college, I saw this play called “Our Young Black Men are Dying and No One Seems to Care.” That was decades ago, as was the incident with the Scottsboro boys. Where is the clue to the audience that this is still happening? Perhaps, instead of placing an iconic Black female at the end of this play, perhaps there should be an iconic Black male. Take your pick: Sean Bell, Victor Steen, Amadou Diallo, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Orlando Barlow, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin…
The Scottsboro Boys, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is playing now through June 30, 2013 at
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz