Posts Tagged ‘Scottsboro Boys’

London 2013 Spooky Theater Roundup

October 31, 2013

After a brief discussion with some other theater bloggers, I’ve decided to do a SPOOKY THEATER SPECIAL for you guys out there in readerville. Do you want to get SCARED for Halloween? Read on …

If you’re looking for traditional chills and thrills, it’s the last night of the third annual London Horror Festival. Perhaps you might enjoy a modernized Fall of the House of Ushers? Poe is perfect for Halloween and I think making the lead characters conceptual artists provides all sorts of opportunities for creepiness. Get in!

If you want to be frightened by what might be, I’d suggest visiting the Suspense Festival of Puppetry, a multi-week event being put on by the good folks at the Little Angel Theater – puppetry but not for kids. Tonight I’m going to see The Fantasist, a show about bipolar disorder – something which can be deeply terrifying, especially if it’s happening to you. If you’d prefer a classic tale of terror, you might want to try Little Angel’s own Macbeth – not on tonight but still a good time.

How about being frightened at how justice can be perverted in a nation in which “all men are created equal?” Yep, I’m telling you straight, if you want to feel like your heart is being ripped out of your body, The Scottsboro Boys at the Young Vic is like being strapped on top of an Aztec pyramid and awaiting communion with the sun god, only with really great music.

Would you prefer a show in which you WISH for death to come? In that case, perhaps From Here to Eternity is your cup of tea. As the actors totter woodenly about on stage while hauling out yet another cliche, you’ll be thinking that being bombed would be a relief.

Finally, what is scarier than OLD AGE? Even if you hang on that long, the possibilities of ill health and dementia are terrifying. Nothing captures that feeling better than Much Ado About Nothing at the Old Vic, which at least has the comedy value of the producing company having the brass balls to charge people 65 quid a pop to watch this turkey. You’ll want to run away as if a wall of blood was chasing you down the aisles. And suddenly, even though puppets are scary to some people, I’m guessing that Macbeth is sounding better and better …

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Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Young Vic Theater

October 28, 2013

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.

Review – The Scottsboro Boys – Lyceum Theater (New York City)

October 11, 2010

Of all of the shows opening in New York this autumn, the one I was most excited about was Scottsboro Boys. Not Elf, not Pee Wee Herman, not Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – but a (for all intents and purposes) new musical by the brilliant team of Kander and Ebb. I couldn’t wait to have the chance to hear their musicality and wit applied anew (albeit somewhat after the fact given that Ebb died in 2004, leaving the lyrics behind). Frankly, the chance to see this show was a cause for hootin’ and hollerin’ and practically reason enough to support my pilgrimage across the pond to the Great White Way (though I was mostly going to see ballet). Previews were starting the last three days of my visit, and by gum, I was gonna go!

Four days later, I’m still finding it a bit difficult to summarize the show in a review-worthy way. In its offensiveness, it’s right up there with Jerry Springer:The Musical – a show I adored for its high-kicking, multi-racial chorus line of Ku Klux Klansmen at the end of act one. But watching a play that digs so hard at America’s racist past without feeling uncomfortable was pretty much impossible on the face, and add to it shovelfulls of creepy “ole time” images (such as black men in white face and an actor scratching his head like he was a gorilla) with a thick helping of anti-Semitism on top (what was the name of that song, “Don’t Take That Jew Money?”* – not one I’ll be singing at the piano bar any time soon), and you, too, may be asking yourself if this is a show worth sitting through (like the African-American audience woman I queried at the end of the show who was ready to walk after 20 minutes). I had to ask myself: if we support this show as audience members, are we supporting the racist and anti-semitic messages of its characters and of several aspects of the production?

This question is further complicated by the obvious anti-racist message: the whole point of the show is that the nine black men accused of rape in 1930s Alabama were individuals with hopes and dreams, talent and ambition. Our ability to tolerate the evil attitudes of the society surrounding them is somewhat tempered by having all of the roles played by these men (other than the near-invisible “interlocutor”): thus the sherrif who beats them and the women who accuse them are all black men, a situation which, I think, just barely manages to temper the evil words that come out of their mouths. Still, when the Alabama attorney goes on an anti-Northern, anti-Jewish rant … suddenly I was brought back to the history of enmity between these two communities, and I didn’t find it the least bit comic. It was ameliorated by the fact that the character being reviled was quite decent, just as much as his defendents (if clearly suffering from his own superiority and racist issues, per one of his songs), but … nails on a chalkboard, I tell you. Letting the nine men rip apart a song about the sweet old South – and how crappy it really was if you weren’t white – didn’t do enough to sugar over these other vile words.

Being uncomfortable really does seem to be at the heart of this show. The actors were the creme de la creme, and I was thrilled to see, finally, a stage full of black talent (how long has it been?), in a show that really let them show off their skills as performers. The show has great singing, a horrifying (yet well-executed) tap dancing routine, and an execution that lets the actors display their range as they (nearly all) play several roles. I was disappointed that the music didn’t show the lyrical wit of other works by Kander and Ebb …. yet there was no doubt that what I saw was extremely powerful. I’m not familiar with the conceit of a minstrel show, so I can’t say to what extent it held up (or held a warped mirror up to) the tradition.

Still …. when I thnk back on all of the musicals I’ve seen this year, Scottsboro Boys will stand out for many reasons. I’m still out on whether it’s a must-see or better-to-avoid. Yet, as someone who’s dedicated to theater as an art form, I am leaning toward see, because anything that makes me this uncomfortable and sparks as much discussion as this show did is probably better faced and dealt with than avoided.

* Actually the song is called “Financial Advice,” but, like “Dance 10, Looks 3” it’s unlikely to be known by its actual title.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on October 8, 2010. For another view, see David Finkle’s review in the Huffington Post or Steve On Broadway’s review of the Guthrie production. The show is booking at least through the end of February, 2011. For a deeper analysis of what this show is trying to do, please see Patrick Healy’s New York Times article.)