John Kander and Fred Ebb’s last musical together, The Scottsboro Boys, opened on Broadway after Ebb’s death, where it flopped, managing a run of only 49 performances. But its historical and deadly serious subject matter, concerning a particularly heinous bit of Jim Crow injustice in 1930s Alabama, has ensured the musical has had a rather successful run at several important regional theaters. (Prior to the current run at ACT, this production played at The Old Globe in San Diego. A slightly different mounting also occurred at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.)
The show has a risky conceit—using minstrel show conventions to comment on and portray the plight of the nine men (boys, actually—the youngest was just 12 or 13 and the oldest were 19) who were falsely accused of raping two white women. But Kander and Ebb, along with book-writer David Thompson, attempt to upend those conventions, employing them not to denigrate blacks for the entertainment of largely white audiences, but to comment on white perceptions and treatment of blacks. The attempt is somewhat analogous to what Thompson did with his updated book (based on the original by Ebb and Bob Fosse) for the 1996 revival of Chicago, where a vaudeville structure is used to present the hardboiled comic tale of the (fictional) murderess Roxie Hart. But Chicago is a musical version of a classic American comedy (by Maurine Watkins). The Scottsboro Boys is a musicalization of a tragic historical event. It would take a special kind of brilliance to pull this off, a brilliance not in evidence here. Instead what we’re left with is a perfunctory presentation that renders the story just another generic account of southern racial injustice. There is no emotional or dramatic connection with the characters on stage, and the audience is left tsk-tsk-ing past injustices and congratulating itself on having seen something daring.
Worse, the minstrel show structure ensures that if we applaud and cheer the musical numbers (specifically, the performers who sing and dance them), we’re complicit in the racist minstrel tradition, which is unfair not only to the audience, but to the actors. (I had to double-check to make sure that George C. Wolfe hadn’t written the book. The concept also calls to mind Spike Lee’s sour, preposterous 2000 film about a modern-day minstrel show, Bamboozled.) Thompson uses irony as a sledgehammer: It’s so heavy-handed it ceases being ironic and becomes merely banal. The Brechtian distancing techniques that were used to such terrific effect in Chicago and Cabaret here put all of the characters at such a remove that empathy is impossible. They’re too distanced from us. They never become human, and we’re never moved by their plight, except in a general, oh-isn’t-that-terrible sort of way.
The show is introduced by the Interlocutor (Hal Linden, the only white cast member), who is soon joined by Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery, who understudied the part on Broadway) and Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph). All three are traditional minstrel stock characters. The Interlocutor serves an MC, doubling as the high-up white authority figures in the story, judges and governors. Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are the clowns who also portray the other white roles: the sheriffs, prison guards, and lawyers. Then the nine actors who portray the accused appear, led by Clifton Duncan as Heywood Patterson. They sit in chairs arranged in a semi-circle (another feature of traditional minstrelsy), which are used in various configurations throughout to serve as train cars, prison cells, buses, and the like. Many of the actors double as other black characters, while two of them (Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) portray the white girls who accuse the boys of rape, thus beginning their horrendous odyssey. While hopping a freight from Tennessee, the boys are arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama, because of a fight with some whites (which they may or may not have actually been involved in). They are then charged with rape by the two white girls, fellow travelers who have clearly made up the accusations to get themselves out of trouble. Threats of lynching, sentences of death (never carried out), years of incarceration, and other shocking miscarriages of justice ensue.
Thompson plays fast and loose with the historical record, which wouldn’t matter if the show had any sort of dramatic truth, but it doesn’t, so the necessary compression and rearrangement become troublesome. Roy Wright (Clinton Roane) is portrayed as considerably older than the 13-year-old he was (Nile Bullock, a young actor who is credible as a pre-teen, plays Eugene Williams, the other 13-year-old defendant), and other details of their ordeal are reordered, omitted, or disregarded. Samuel Leibowitz (portrayed satirically by Mr. Bones), the white, Jewish New York lawyer who defended the boys (at no cost) in their many retrials and appeals is horribly mistreated by Thompson. He is criticized for having a black chauffeur and maid (would he be less racist if he refused to hire blacks for those positions?), and his own sacrifices on the boys’ behalf are dismissed because of impure motives (as if “pure” motives existed anywhere but in bad narratives). When one of the white girls recants her testimony, she is first handed a sheet of paper by Leibowitz, from which she reads her new testimony, suggesting that Leibowitz has somehow unethically orchestrated this new development.
This all comes to a head in the musical’s dramatic climax. After spending many years in prison, Leibowitz approaches Patterson with a chance for parole, if he will plead guilty to the rapes. But the script’s Patterson is nobility itself, so after (briefly) agonizing over the choice, he refuses to lie, even though it would free him. And so, we’re told, he dies in prison. Here’s what really happened: Patterson later escaped from prison and fled to Detroit. The governor of Michigan refused to extradite him back to Alabama, so he remained free, until he killed a man in a bar fight and was imprisoned for that crime. Then he died in prison. But these truths play havoc with Thompson’s conception of Patterson as the incorruptible hero and Leibowitz as the shyster who would dare ask his client to compromise his principles. Thompson can’t trust his audience to understand people are messy and complicated, a fact that doesn’t mitigate the injustice done to Patterson one iota. Thompson apparently fears it does.
What the audience does respond to is the terrific, talented cast. Montgomery, Joseph, Oliver, Lane, and especially Duncan are ferociously talented, as are the rest of the players. The one criticism I have is against Eric Jackson as Clarence Norris, who yells too much in his initial scenes. While anger is a justifiable reaction to being imprisoned on a false rape charge, Jackson’s performance is too one-note here, and it’s tiresome rather than moving. Superstar director and choreographer Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact, The Music Man revival) acquits herself ably, using the chairs in their various guises ingeniously, but she’s unable to overcome the flawed concept and too-obvious book. And what of Kander and Ebb’s score? The jaunty “Commencing in Chattanooga” which occurs on the train journey before the arrest is sort of fun, and the wistful ballad “Go Back Home,” which expresses the boys’ sorrow and longing for freedom, is lovely. But the other songs are overly didactic or obvious, and the decisions as to when the songs should be in the minstrel show convention and when they shouldn’t seems arbitrary and not well thought out.
In a show full of bad ideas, perhaps the worst is the use of its lone female cast member (C. Kelly Wright, who does her best in perhaps the most thankless role ever). Silent and omnipresent for almost all of the play, she represents Silenced Black Womanhood, or perhaps Silenced Black Personhood. Then at play’s end, Thompson uses Wright to transform Rosa Parks’ famous act of bravery into sentimentality, an idea as dumb as the son in Next to Normal turning out to be a manic-depressive hallucination.
The Scottsboro Boys turns out to be just another act of injustice against a group of men and boys who have already suffered enough. Thompson gives us only the barest details of the defendants’ actual lives. All we know at play’s end is that they were innocent, they had mothers, and they wanted their freedom. But we knew that going in. The audience is also unjustly antagonized for responding to the performances. To judge from Kander’s program notes, this was unintentional, which makes the transgression even worse—Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson are too smart to have overlooked this effect of employing a minstrel show construction. It’s also unfair to their talented cast, whose performances can’t be accepted on their own merits, and who aren’t allowed to portray actual human beings. Local critics are treating the production as an artistic triumph. It isn’t. It’s a disaster.
The Scottsboro Boys plays until July 22 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, go to www.act-sf.org.