The Scottsboro Boys
27th October 2014
Musicals are an interesting medium. At times they can be light and frivolous and as is the case with the Scottsboro Boys, a musical can hold a mirror up to society to show great social injustice.
The story of the Scottsboro Boys is little known outside of the United States. In 1931, nine black youths were riding the rails when they were hauled off a train in Scottsboro, Alabama and accused of raping two white women who were also riding on the train. The nine were found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair. Through re-trial after re-trial, the nine are repeatedly found guilty by white jurors, despite the fact that the evidence was showing the boys were clearly innocent. An active political campaign driven largely by the Communist Party meant that the case remained in the public eye for many years until ultimately as a result of the cost burden of the trials and some judicial and sentencing administrative trickery some of the boys were released.
The Scottsboro Boys is presented as an old-style minstrel show. Such shows were a popular form of entertainment, usually cast entirely from white performers playing in blackface. This device is heightened, by having an African-American cast playing all of the characters in the Scottsboro Boys story, including the alleged female rape victims, deputies and lawyers.
The Interlocutor (host of the minstrel show) played by Julian Glover, allows the minstrel to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys “as it really was”, realising too late in proceedings, that he has lost control of the story, and that instead of a show full of sentimentalised and sanitised memories and routines such as the Cakewalk, the audience are getting a warts and all re-telling of the story. In numbers like Southern Days, what starts as a dreamy recollection of the South ends up with references of the Ku Klux Clan and burning crosses, or when the youngest of the boys is terrorised by deputies who bring him face to face with the electric chair.
No stranger to large-scale musicals, it is interesting that Director/Choreographer Susan Stroman, has delivered a production without overblown staging. The Scottsboro Boys relies on the skills of its acting company, giving them chairs and tambourines and a few costumes, as their only tools and the show becomes all the more powerful as a result. This is an unbeatable, incredible ensemble of performers who manage to inject incredible humour into a story that by its very nature inspires indignation. It’s quite incredible to think that it was only in 2013 that The Scottsboro Boys were officially pardoned.
Penned by one of the greatest musical theatre writing teams of all time, John Kander and Fred Ebb, the show was unfinished at the time of Fred Ebb’s passing in 2014. Kander, stepped in and penned lyrics, allowing what must be considered as perhaps their greatest work to be staged.
The Scottsboro Boys was a complete sell-out in its brief season at the Young Vic last year, and this current season at the Garrick Theatre is also limited to 20 weeks. Don’t miss this incredible piece of musical theatre.