The Scottsboro Boys: Minstrels On a Mission
It is a concept that would naturally spark interest among these particular collaborators, a concept that they might have reasonably rejected after a mull or two. But the creators of The Scottsboro Boys persevered, and while the show’s Broadway run was brief, their talent and audacity brought forth a provocatively entertaining musical that ACT wisely acquired as the striking capper to its season.
Although the production at ACT is part of just a two-city share with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, it comes with most of the Broadway creative staff intact. Sets, costumes, and lighting are by their original creators, and while the cast is a mix of newcomers and originators, they all possess main-stem polish under the guidance of Susan Stroman, the endlessly inventive director-choreographer whose earlier work has ranged from the classy all-dance Contact to the brazen ribaldry of The Producers.
The dicey concept for The Scottsboro Boys that she developed with librettist David Thompson, composer John Kander, and late lyricist Fred Ebb is to use the minstrel-show format to reenact a notorious chapter in our country’s racial history. Though now more a footnote than a headline, the story of nine young black men quickly sentenced to death for the alleged rape of two white women aboard a freight train passing through Alabama in 1931 grew into front-page material as the North and South did battle once again.
There are moments when the nine actors playing the title characters perform a number that can evoke the exuberance of Dolly Levi’s return to the Harmonia Gardens. The irony is obvious, but that Stroman and her colleagues find a way that allows us to enjoy the performance without diminishing its context adds humanity to the irony.
The Scottsboro Boys are at times reluctant players in once again retelling their story. "This time can we tell it how it really happened?" asks one of the men at the start of the show. He is talking to the Interlocutor, the traditional master of ceremonies in a minstrel show, whose job it is to guide the olio of songs, dances, and jokes. Here he is the only white performer on stage, a dapper, amiable, and paternalistic gent in a plantation-white suit always pushing for a cakewalk, and who panics when his charges go off script. Broadway and TV veteran Hal Linden hits the perfect notes with his assured take on the role.
Songwriters Kander and Ebb found their greatest successes in filtering serious subjects through a showbiz veneer. In Cabaret, the nightclub performances at the titular venue provide a veiled commentary on the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in pre-war Germany. Murder, corruption, and media manipulation are filtered via vaudeville in Chicago. Neither vaudeville nor cabarets carry the baggage associated with minstrel shows, but the musical’s creators move in and out of the form in a way that adds power to the study of injustice. And the songs, some with lyrics provided by composer Kander after his collaborator’s death, are always on target, whether communicating a joyous or heartbreaking moment.
Working on a stage that is nearly bare, and with just a collection of chairs to employ, Stroman has the cast arrange the chairs to suggest a variety of locales. Though almost by definition an ensemble show, and everyone in the excellent cast plays multiple characters, several roles do stand out. In addition to Linden, there are Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery in the traditional minstrel roles of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, and Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson, who becomes the prisoners’ de facto leader. And as the only woman in the cast, C. Kelly Wright mysteriously moves through the action until her relevance is revealed in a magical final moment.
The election of Barack Obama as president was cited by some that we live in a post-racial society. That sentiment lasted about as long as it will take you to read this sentence. To call The Scottsboro Boys a history lesson is an injustice to its makers’ skills as entertainers. But even if history has the indiscreet habit of repeating itself, at least knowing it is a step up.
The Scottsboro Boys will run at ACT through July 22. An OUT with ACT reception for LGBT audiences will follow the July 11 performance. Call 749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.