REVIEW: “The Scottsboro Boys” at Signature Theatre
Last Wednesday, as the nation continued reeling amid the fallout from the ongoing crisis at our southern border where Trump Administration policy to remove undocumented migrant children from their parents—housing them in cages and losing track of thousands of foster placements—marked yet another new low point for our brazenly racist federal government, another story popped into the news.
That’s the story of Michael Thomas Jr., a ten year old African American boy wrongly arrested by Chicago police and handcuffed atop a patrol car after being falsely suspected of toting a gun. Clearly unarmed, petrified, and covered in his own urine, the video of little Michael highlights a national disgrace and brings to mind the memory of Eugene Williams, at age 13 one of the youngest of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American teenagers arrested in Alabama in 1931, accused, found guilty, and sentenced to death for raping two white women, a crime they did not commit and that did not even occur—an episode regarded as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in American history.
Like Michael, Eugene was alone and afraid, a child singled out and persecuted because of the color of his skin. It just so happens that Wednesday night I attended “The Scottsboro Boys” at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, a regional revival of a 2010 musical by legendary songwriting team John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret”, “Chicago”) and librettist David Thompson (“Steel Pier”) about this infamous story, one we’d like to think is a vestige of the past but that the headlines keep telling us is the inescapable plague of our present.
Marking one of their last collaborations (Ebb died in 2004 while work was still in progress), “The Scottsboro Boys” received a warm critical response (12 Tony nominations) but a tepid audience following, resulting in a short run on Broadway in the fall of 2010 after premiering at the Vineyard Theatre Off-Broadway that spring under the helm of director/choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”, “Contact”).
I was fortunate to catch the show on Broadway eight years ago and jumped at the chance to see it again because it is a brilliant and deeply unsettling dramatization of the trauma Jim Crow and its legacy has wrought upon our country, told with the slickly glitzy and cynical showmanship most famously honed by Kander and Ebb in “Chicago” (1975).
If you can imagine, “The Scottsboro Boys” is much darker than the tale of married murderesses and showbiz-tainted justice depicted in “Chicago”. That show adopted as its form a musical vaudeville. This show reaches back further to resurrect the minstrel show as its storytelling convention. Born in the early 19th century, and outstaying its welcome long into the 20th, minstrel shows were an insidious form of entertainment in which white men in blackface mocked black people as simple-minded, happy-go-lucky, and lazy, presenting every racist characterization one can imagine—all played for laughs and in service of maintaining the institution of slavery and the oppressed social status of freedmen.
Highly stylized and meticulously constructed, “The Scottsboro Boys” turns the minstrel show concept on its head, employing an ensemble of black men, often as white men in “blackface”, to tell a story about racial injustice as a series of musical numbers incorporating minstrel show staples such as a semi-circle set up of chairs, the stock characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, a white interlocutor, tap dancing and cakewalking, and pastoral romanticization of the antebellum south.
Instead of pushing racist ideology, however, each number skewers a distinct aspect of racial injustice, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism in much the same way that “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” (“the Gorilla Song”) operates in “Cabaret” (1966). Unlike “Cabaret” and “Chicago”, though, “The Scottsboro Boys” makes a point—in its very opening number—then continues making slight variations on the same point for over two hours, a level of didacticism some criticize but I welcome, for there are over 400 years of mistreatment to address and redress, and Kander and Ebb’s underrated score shines throughout.
Signature Theatre, one of the foremost regional theatres in the country, mounts an impressive and solid production of this uncomfortable musical, made all the more striking by playing below the Mason-Dixon line in a state that was once home to the capital of the Confederacy and where flaming torch-clad white supremacists proudly marched just last year.
While the original production was performed on a bare stage with a handful of chairs and a cyclorama, this production, directed by Joe Calarco, is more richly appointed by set designer Daniel Conway with a v-shape of brick walls and a rotating proscenium arch centerstage, all accentuated by an incredible lighting design by Sherrice Mojgani that punctuates the near-non-stop movement on stage (choreography by Jared Grimes). I much prefer this mise-en-scène to the original.
The ensemble cast is energetic and strong, particularly the charismatic Lamont Walker II as protagonist Haywood Patterson, and Stephen Scott Wormley as Mr. Bones, whose rendition of “Financial Advice” stops the show.
Without revealing too much, a largely unaddressed African American female figure haunts the stage, watching the show but also the audience from a row of seats perched downstage center, looking audience members in the eye at key moments, making us see what she is seeing, but also making us see ourselves—fitting since the vast majority of the audience is white and relatively old.
This female figure is more prominently placed here than I recall her being on Broadway, and her use is remarkably effective at asking us to bear witness and appreciate the myriad ways that we all benefit from the system or the sacrifices made by prior generations of ordinary citizens and civil rights fighters—sacrifices that continue to this day.
The central genius of “The Scottsboro Boys” is the power it possesses to move audiences to confront the horrors of the past, make the connection to the horrors of the present, and change the future. The quickly escalated police stop we witness in 1931 Alabama, guns drawn on innocent black men presumed guilty of imagined crimes, is no different from the iPhone videos we see on the nightly news.
The brutality, violence, and de-humanization faced by black people for hundreds of years and every day is viscerally underscored by the manipulation and terrorism of black bodies by the white interlocutor and white characters that we witness onstage, discordantly paired with John Kander’s merry melodies to mark a searing indictment of American society.
Signature Theatre’s exceptionally composed and well-calibrated production fumbles only twice, in an unfortunately weak tap dance number (“Electric Chair”) and in its final moment, when an ensemble member appears in a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt—a wholly unnecessary and ham-fisted gesture that underestimates the audience’s intelligence given the events of the preceding two hours.
These minor faults aside, musical theatre fans in the D.C.-metro area should flock to this regional premiere of an extraordinary and underappreciated musical. It’s an important “must see” of the season, and well-worth the visit.
Bottom Line: Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia mounts an impressive and solid production of Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys”, a satirical minstrel show presentation of the harrowing story of one of the most disgraceful episodes in American history. Musical theatre fans in the D.C.-metro area should flock to this regional premiere of an extraordinary and underappreciated musical. It’s an important “must see” of the season, and well-worth the visit.