It’s been a three years since I saw The Scottsboro Boys in New York. At the time I saw it as a failure, in part because of its negative reception by local audiences (and rather quick closing) and in part because of my feeling that the music was just a bit of a hash of older music from the Kander/Ebb repetoire. But I was still very excited about a chance to see it again in London. What was it, I wonder? Was it because actually … it was really very good? Or did I just want a chance to see a show made by people who actually knew how to write music?
After seeing Friday’s preview performance at the Young Vic, I’ve changed how I feel about this show: I now think it is a modern masterpiece, one that we are lucky to have performed in the intimate confines of the Young Vic with a prodigious shower of talent. Five of the eleven core cast (the nine “Scottsboro Boys” plus the key characters of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones) are from the original Broadway show, and I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with excitement at seeing that much black talent on the stage at the same time, including British black talent. I don’t like that my favorite art form doesn’t seem to look at all like the society I live in, and it makes me really happy to see fantastic actors of color given a chance to shine. It’s good for their careers, it’s good for the industry, it’s good for diversifying the audiences that come to theater – and, in this case, it means we are getting to see a story that’s totally new, because it’s about a section of (American) society that isn’t portrayed on the stage very much.
And, wow, what a story. I knew where it was going but other people in the audience didn’t: I heard a young woman gasp with disbelief at a key moment in the story. The story of The Scottsboro Boys isn’t in British text books, and it was probably about one sentence in my high school American history class; but I don’t want people to be told what it’s about. Let the tale unspool as a surprise, so that every twist and turn can be as horrifying as it ought to be. In my homeland, black men were imprisoned for looking at white women. They were hung for getting out of line, and by their fellow citizens, not by any “law.” This was America. Nine men could go to jail for trumped up rape charges and still be kept there even when the evidence was shown to not exist. And yes, we kept 13 year old children in jail on charges of rape – two of them, in this case, and a fifteen year old, and two seventeen year olds. And my glorious “land of the free and home of the brave” systematically denied them every protection of law available.
Kander and Ebb take this tale of horrors and present it in the form of a minstrel show, with the traditional comic roles of Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon) (they play the jailors, the judges, drunk attorneys and so on) while the one white character – the interlocutor (Julian Glover) – moves the action along. Or does he? In some ways, his role as the “master of ceremonies’ (per a traditional minstrel show) is actually transmuted into the “voice of white Alabama,” and his attempts to act as if his role as a superior is natural and accepted by the black men is blatantly subverted in the song “Southern Days” (which also makes clear the abuse of blacks that existed continually along the “genteel” side of the South). Attorney Samuel Leibowitz (also Forreset McClendon) shows up to give us a moment of hope for race relations – he is, at least, offended by the separate entrances and drinking fountains for “colored” – but as he sings “That’s Not the Way We Do Things,” it becomes clear he believes just as much in the superiority of whites – the people up north are just more subtle in their racism. And then we get “Financial Advice,” where the Alabama Attorney General starts talking about Jew money, and, seriously, sitting there in the audience, it’s just so incredibly dirty and distressing that it’s hard to stay in your chair.
Surrounding all of this like the praline around a pecan is the music and dancing that flesh out this work. Never trivial, always beautiful, I feel as if the creators of this show tried their hardest to keep us put by giving us beautiful singing and hair-raising choreography (oh, that electric chair song!) to help balance out the horrors we’re watching on stage. In some ways, it’s the Cabaret approach all over again, minus the sex and the drugs, with us hoping against hope that “I won’t lie to be free” Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe – how does he do it night after night?) is going to get a happy ending. Because, you know, that’s how it happens in Cabaret, right?
I could go on and on about how good the performances were, mutter a bit about the strange presence of “The Lady” (obviously meant from the beginning to be Rosa Parks – Dawn Hope), cheer about the inventive choreography, beam at the stripped down set that lets you build trains, jails, courtrooms, and plantation homes with your imaginations. But instead, I’ll just note that top price tickets for this show are 35 quid, and that, even at that price, I judge them to be a giveaway for what you get in return. It’s been extended to December 21st, and the running time is 1:45, by which time you’ll be exhausted and exhilarated and possibly wanting a drink. Book early: I think this might be the show you decide to go see twice – as it’s not British history you’re watching, there’s just enough separation to truly revel in the amazing thing the actors have created. The Scottsboro Boys is the crowning glory of the diamonds of American musical theater: don’t miss it.