Early in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Scottsboro Boys, Clifton Duncan takes center stage. He plays Haywood Patterson, one of nine black men wrongly accused of rape in 1931. He sings “Nothin”: “I ain’t done nothin’/ But I’m going to die/ So I won’t say nothin’/ It wouldn’t help nothin’/ When you can’t help nothin’.” As he sings, Duncan alternates between radically different styles: ferocious “real” anger and the warped, blackface caricature of old minstrel shows. He fires away, then falls way back, then fires away. Same song, different universes.
The performance imprisons Haywood twice: he’s in jail and, when he shucks and jives, he’s trapped in a demeaning tradition that ruled the American stage for over 70 years.
Starting in the mid-19th Century, white American actors portrayed blacks as socially and racially inferior. In order to perform, blacks had to smear their faces with burnt cork and imitate the white portrayal. The stereotype became so ingrained that, deep into the 20th Century, whites became surprised — even shocked — when blacks didn’t act that way in real life.
The Scottsboro “boys” — even the tag’s insulting — hopped a freight from Chattanooga to Memphis in 1931. They shared a boxcar and didn’t know each other. When white teenagers told a sheriff that young blacks had attacked them, a posse formed and stopped the train. Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, white girls, said they’d been raped at knifepoint. The case became a cause célèbre: were the nine guilty? Or victims of Jim Crow lynch fever?
Several trials followed. For six years, the nine served time on death row — and heard the electric chair screech when in use. Some were released. Others spent decades in prison. In 2004, Scottsboro, Alabama, erected a historical marker, commemorating the case and acknowledging the injustice.
In some ways, The Scottsboro Boys is an extension of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Both are “concept” musicals that often present two messages at the same time: like nodding “yes” but saying “no.” The most melodic song in Cabaret, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” envisions the rise of the Third Reich. Scottsboro doesn’t just tell the story. Kander and Ebb present it as a minstrel show.
White-haired Ron Holgate — decked out like Colonel Sanders — is the MC. When he tells his all-male, all-black minstrel troupe they’ll do the Scottsboro story tonight, Haywood asks, “This time, can we tell the truth?” But as in the two-sided version of “Nothin’,” they must nod a yowza yes while feeling an adamant no.
The cast tells the tragic story with cakewalk kicks and shuffles. They live down to the stereotype. It’s tempting to shout “Enough already!” since they make the point from the start. But, like the false accusation that drives David Thompson’s book, the framing persists. The effect is disturbing — and when was the last time that happened to you in a theater?
At times, however, the Stepin Fetchit minstrel antics overpower a scene. They cartoon the “truth” Haywood wants to tell and undercut the anguish.
With one exception, the musical doesn’t step outside the frame to develop characters in detail or to show how the Civil Rights Movement gathered impetus from the trials. The exception: a speechless, solitary woman follows the scene from afar. She turns out to be an icon of the movement (who was 19 when the trials began). When her identity’s revealed, it ties a bow around the story that feels gratuitous: as if to say, if we offended you, we’re sorry — here’s our apology.
Beowulf Boritt’s minimalist set underscores the concept with large, three-sided picture frames tilting askew in the background. A dozen or so metallic chairs reconfigure to create various locales (even the tiny window of the jail). Ken Billington’s excellent lighting takes sides where the musical doesn’t, as when he paints the scrim hot peach or bombards the entire stage with a florid red.
Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the Broadway version, which ran for 49 performances, not counting previews, and earned 12 Tony nominations. For the Old Globe, Stroman directs and choreographs with the remarkable precision and flair that earned her Tony nominations in each category. Most apt are the differences between the minstrel dances and those occasions when the troupe breaks into freer, more contemporary styles.
The ensemble cast, in a word, is spectacular. From Clifton Duncan’s contorted “Nothin’” to Christopher James Culberson and Clinton Roane’s nightmarish “Electric Chair” to Jared Joseph and J.C. Montgomery’s “end men” — Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, who clown white stereotypes — no one is anywhere near a weak link. There’s so much talent, were this any other show, you could sit back and be wall-to-wall entertained.
Much of Kander and Ebb’s score comes from ragtime. The music got the name from its “raggy motion.” Scottsboro works like that as well. In blatant, over-explanatory ways, the show will inspire deep, controversial responses very few plays, and even fewer musicals, would dare evoke. ■
The Scottsboro Boys, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman; cast: Ron Holgate, Jared Joseph, J.C. Montgomery, C. Kelly Wright, David Bazemore, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson, Clifton Duncan, Eric Jackson, Shavey Brown, James T. Lane, Clifton Oliver, Clinton Roane; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Jon Weston; music director, Eric Ebbenga
Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park
Playing through June 10; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623