Few episodes of racism in our country resonate like that of the trial of the Scottsboro boys. In 1931, white youths attacked nine young black men riding the rails from Memphis to Chattanooga, Tenn., to look for work. When the police arrived and held the black men responsible, two white women from Alabama at the scene also accused them of rape. Less than a month later, they were tried and found guilty in an Alabama courtroom. And though they won the right to another trial, almost all of them endured several more years of incarceration.
In 2004 the hugely successful musical team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago and Cabaret), who have shown a propensity for choosing controversial subjects, decided to use the Scottsboro incident as the basis for their new musical. Susan Stroman (The Producers) was brought in to direct and choreograph, and David Thompson, who adapted the script for Chicago's revival, took on the book. The Scottsboro Boys arrived on Broadway this week, fresh from sold-out runs at the Vineyard Theater in New York and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
The show begins quietly with a lone woman, played by Robin S. Walker (substituting for Sharon Washington), sitting primly on a chair, a neatly wrapped box on her lap. She will reappear in scene after scene, never speaking, representing all the mothers and women connected with the Scottsboro boys who patiently waited for them to be released. Behind her, silver chairs are piled on top of one another, the basic elements of Beowulf Boritt's ingenious set, which later turns into a courtroom and an execution room. Suddenly, nine rambunctious young men come racing down the theater's aisles, jump onto the stage and arrange the chairs in a circle.
An elderly white man called the Interlocutor, played broadly by John Collum, the show's only white actor, enters, dapper in white suit and high hat. Like a master of ceremonies, he announces, "Tonight's a night of merriment/of laughter, songs, and jokes," commanding the group to shake their tambourines. They launch into "Minstrel March." Two minstrel characters, dressed flashily in plaid — Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the over-the-top Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon — join them, livening up the proceedings.
When the music comes to an end, the Interlocutor asks the men to tell their story. They take their chairs, rearrange them like train cars, and we're off. The men relate what happened leading up to the accusation, soon interrupted by the fight that triggers the incident with the women. Two actors in drag, Christian Dante White and James T. Lane, double as the fluffy, hypocritical ladies of easy virtue who accuse them of rape.
The creators may have thought that the same Brechtian approach to sin and evil that worked in Chicago and Cabaret would suit this story as well, but they seem to have overlooked some basic and very important differences. The characters in Chicago were, in fact, guilty of the crimes they were accused of, and none too remorseful. The protagonists in Cabaret were simply decadent and charming.
What in the world do nine falsely accused black man in the 1930s Jim Crow South have in common with gangsters and nightclub performers? How could Kander and Ebb have possibly thought they could pull off a musical satire of a tragic incident — and one that could just as likely happen today? And why did they want to?
As the show continues, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo take on the roles of Gestapo-like guards, ever more campy, goose-stepping as they brutalize the Scottsboro boys, who are still confined after their first mistrial. The boys, who were actually in their teens, struggle with their fears. Joshua Henry movingly plays Haywood Patterson, who struggles to learn to write so he can communicate with his mother. The youngest Scottsboro boy, played by actor Jeremy Gumbs, practically moves one to tears every time he sings. But whenever the story takes a poignant turn, on come the big, vulgar jokes and Stroman's grating razzmatazz song-and-dance numbers — like someone afraid to show emotion because it might indicate weakness.
In place of true wit, we get camp. Nor do characters develop or have any dimension. In fact, the play resembles a cartoon version of events, perhaps the biggest insult imaginable. The white Alabamians are bad, but in ridiculous ways; and the blacks are all victims, but victims without any traits other than their victimhood. Because the cast is so richly talented — especially the actors who play the boys — an audience member can occasionally get caught up in the power of a song, like Haywood singing "Go Back Home." But this is never enough to dispel the uneasiness caused by the joking attitude about a grave injustice.
Near the end, it almost seems as if the creators want to apologize for their approach, as they reveal the fates of the Scottsboro boys — horrendous fates even for those released early. It leaves you wondering all the more why they chose this story, and why so many people in the theater seemed delighted by such a callous production in such questionable taste.
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.