Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
The Scottsboro Boys
Kander and Ebb wrote scores for musicals about challenging topics (Nazi Germany, for example, and Jazz Age murder celebrities) by tapping into entertainment styles associated with them (Weimar cabaret and vaudeville, respectively). Their score and David Thompson's book for The Scottsboro Boys use a minstrel show theme to tell the real-life story of nine black teenagers falsely accused of rape in Alabama in the 1930s.
The minstrel show emerged in the 1830s as a form of travelling entertainment consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing and songs. These shows commonly featured white performers wearing blackface to portray dim-witted and happy-go-lucky African-American characters. Though the minstrel show was in decline by 1910, blackface lived on in cartoons and movies, perhaps most notably with Al Jolson in the first motion picture with sound, The Jazz Singer. By the Civil Rights Era, both blackface and minstrelsy were widely recognized as deeply racist forms, and in reaching back to these traditions, the writers of The Scottsboro Boys clearly were counting on the discomfort they would cause in modern audiences at hearing the tragic story.
The musical begins not with any of the many male cast members, but with the sole woman, who sits on the stage in under a stark light. Soon she opens the theatre doors for the rest of the cast to march in. She has practically nothing to say, and her purpose here will not be understood until much later in the show. The entire cast consists of people of color, with the exception of David McClutchey as the Interlocutor, who serves as the master of ceremonies and directs the cast to sing a rousing opening number and then seat themselves in the semicircle format common in minstrelsy. The cast does as they are told at first, but soon the most outspoken of the nine boys, Haywood (Darius Jordan Lee), steps up to ask the Interlocuter, "Tonight, can we tell it like it really happened? This time can we tell the truth?" This goal will consume Haywood throughout the show, and it may well cost him and his compatriots their lives.
The score is among Kander and Ebb's finest. Kander's toe-tapping and at times haunting melodies linger long after the curtain falls. And Ebb's smartly funny and tongue-in-cheek lyrics are some of his best. The beautiful ballad "Go Back Home" ranks among the best songs written for the stage in recent decades. Theatre Raleigh's production has omitted two musical numbers ("Make Friends with the Truth" and "It's Gonna Take Time") from the score, the former being a true highlight of the original production with its stark commentary on lynching and segregation. It is unclear why they were removed, and needless to say, they are missed here.
Otherwise, this production is quite faithful both to the material and the 2010 Broadway production, from Chris Bernier's minimal but effective scenic design to Dorothy Austin-Harrell's grab-bag costume design. Director Gerry McIntyre also provides the rousing choreography for the production, and his instincts are strong both when they provoke our laughter and when they make us uneasy. Eric Alexander Collins' sound effects enhance setting and mood. Christina Munich's lighting design, though beautiful and effective in parts of the production, is uneven in others, leaving characters obscured and audience members wondering where to look. The previously mentioned character of "the lady" (portrayed with stoic warmth by Aya Wallace) also presents a challenge. She is effective when she serves as a co-observer with the audience, but this production inserts her into quite a bit of the activity onstage. By the time the audience realizes who she is, the impact of the moment has been a bit weakened.
Imperfections aside, The Scottsboro Boys is not be missed, whether it is for the history lesson, the strength of the book and score, or the accomplished cast. As Haywood Patterson, the main protagonist of the show, Darius Jordan Lee provides a moving portrayal of a man who has been stripped of every form of freedom except the truth he holds firm to in his heart. Other standouts are Trey McCoy and Melvin Gray, Jr., who play Charles Weems and Ozie Powell, as well as the two women who accuse the boys of raping them. Mr. Gray gets carried away as Ruby Bates and takes us with him with his rendition of "Never Too Late." As Eugene Williams, the youngest of the nine, Michael Lassiter is both touching in his sensitivity and impressive in his dancing and singing. Jason Daniel Rath is humorous as Mr. Tambo but really shines as the boys' lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, particularly with his number "That's Not the Way We Do Things." And David Robbins makes a triumphant Theatre Raleigh debut as Mr. Bones, hilariously subverting the minstrel device of white mockery of blacks as he embodies the stereotypical white men of power.
Though some have criticized this show for its risky artistic choice, the minstrel tradition is not being celebrated here, but used to underscore the systemic racism that assaulted black people both in the courtroom and on the stage. Near the end of the show, Haywood hears his ultimate fate from one of the guards: "You're gonna lie in jail and die in jail. The only thing left will be how people remember you... if they remember you." If nothing else, here's hoping this musical keeps the story of Haywood and other eight young men alive.
The Scottsboro Boys, through September 15, 2019, by Theatre Raleigh, Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, 2 East South St., Raleigh NC. For tickets and information, visit www.theatreraleigh.com or call 919-832-9997.
Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb