If the new idea is that the producers of the now closed Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys have launched an online campaign to revive the show just in time for Tonys season, then I must admit something. It's something I cannot imagine I'm alone in, or at least I hope I'm not.
I don't think The Scottsboro Boys is very good. I know it gave some fine black actors work. But what with Memphis, Fela! and A Free Man of Color all currently playing on the Great White Way, I'm not feeling that I should hush up because the main thing is that black actors get to play Broadway at all. We also have to recall recent entries like Passing Strange and Fences and the all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the fact that Driving Miss Daisy has a black person of a certain note in it, while black leads pass through Chicago all the time … and Broadway is hardly the only place where theater is done in America.
We can assess Scottsboro on its merits; and its minstrel framework, oft mentioned, is in fact the least interesting thing about a show whose main problem is that it's baby food.
The Scottsboro affair was horrific indeed — so starkly so, in such a long-ago way, that it becomes the central problem of the show. Is there any actual drama in a lesson that nakedly accusing a group of black boys of a rape they clearly did not commit and relegating them to imprisonment indefinitely was wrong? One senses that the authors — writer David Thompson, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb — realized this immediately, and therefore relied on the minstrel format to make things more, well, abstract.
But it doesn't contribute anything meaningful. We may argue over the nature of racism in 2010, but it's not exactly obscure to anyone that in the 1930s, most whites thought of black people as cartoons. As such, to have blacks doing the whites in minstrel fashion isn't "turning things around" — i.e., clever.
It's the kind of device that a certain kind of bien-pensant person today is trained to pretend to think of as clever, as something that "makes you think" — which is an expression you use to refer to something that makes you say, bemusedly, that it makes you think, but doesn't actually make you think. With the Scottsboro case, after all, what's to think about?
Clever, in 2010, was more like David Mamet's Race, which really dug into the contradictions inherent in our views of stereotyping, rationales for affirmative action and the nature of discrimination. Clever, in that vein, would be a play in which blacks play whites telling whites playing black students that they have been admitted to a school or law firm because of their diversity rather than their qualifications. Cleverer would be if the white official were played by a black-inflected white performer like Eminem. There are all kinds of places you could go.
And we must never forget the boys sticking some sassy lyrics into the spiritual that the white man makes them sing. Gosh, all get out: Black people have irony! Wow, the places theater can take us, and the things it can teach us about the human soul.
The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout gets it right with this thought: The Scottsboro Boys would have been appropriately up-to-the-minute theater for the Mad Men characters, when "watching a stageful of black men performing a ‘comic' minstrel show about so hideous an event would have stung like a flogging."
But must we pretend that white audiences haven't gotten any further along than that? The show is an insult not to blacks, who come out looking quite fine on all levels, but to whites — even though those very whites are purring and nodding contentedly at Scottsboro performances exactly where they are supposed to, as if they are receiving afresh the lessons that white people on The Jeffersons were taught. Their reception of this thing is, in its way, a performance of its own.
One senses — and I suppose I would feel this way if I were one of them — that if the show is trying to teach you a lesson about racism, then it's vaguely backward not to think of it as profound. Or that you're not supposed to assess a show with a cast of black men in trouble just on its merits.
The merits of the piece simply aren't much. John Kander and Fred Ebb are the creators of some of the most electric and touching music ever written for the stage — and that's coming from somebody who sometimes blows off steam at the piano playing "Don't Tell Mama" and "Nowadays" and is always telling people to give Steel Pier a second listen. But all teams have their off days. And the script has some ambiguities studiously grafted on here and there — but nothing like, say, the lead character falsely implicating some of the others on the stand in an initial fit of desperation. That happened in real life.
It's just a musical. But if The Scottsboro Boys is going to be embraced as something much more than what it is, with top-class awards and all, then it will be a graceless detour in what we call progress on race. Progress would be the honesty to admit that today, it's not news that racism is bad and that it was more rampant in the old days. In our era, to pretend that this is an adult message, is to exemplify Tocqueville's characterization of what happens to artists in a democracy: "[t]hey substitute the representation of motion and sensation for that of sentiment and thought."
Keeping in mind that by "sentiment," Tocqueville meant "feeling" rather than the treacly falseness that has since accreted to that word, we should also note that he meant this to apply equally to the reception as well as the production of art. And any time you hear someone praising the "energy" and "spirit" of this paint-by-numbers musical rather than engaging with what it has (not) to say about something we were supposed to be taking seriously — race, of all things — you are seeing Tocqueville vindicated.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.