The Scottsboro Boys is based on a true story of racial prejudice and injustice in Alabama, a sequence of events that started in 1931. Nine black teenagers, none of whom knew each other at the time, were on a train going about their various business, doing or seeking work somewhere around Chattanooga, when they were accused by two white girls, also on the same train, of rape. The case became something of a cause celebre, with the boys adamantly protesting their innocence, but unfair trial after unfair trial found them guilty, even when one of the alleged victims withdrew her accusation. It wasn’t until 1937 that the rape charges against the four youngest boys were dropped, 1976 when the last of the defendants was officially declared not guilty, and, incredibly, 2013 before they were all pardoned. As the show reveals, the majority of them went on to lead variously tragic lives, in and out of prison, including suicide, manslaughter, and mental illness.
Sounds like a bundle of laughs, doesn’t it? It’s taken us a very long time to see this show. It opened at the Young Vic in October 2013 to great success, and then transferred to the Garrick last autumn, where it is scheduled to stay until 21st February. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to get the chance to see it whilst we still could. As we were enjoying our pre-show lunch, we were talking about what little we knew (shame on us) about the case of the Scottsboro Boys, and how we expected it to be rather serious and sad. “…And it’s a musical?” asked Mrs C. “How are they going to make a story like that into a musical, without ridiculing or belittling the people involved?” A good question.
The answer is a stroke of genius. It’s not a serious, mournful sub-opera, but a song-and-dancey modern take on the traditional American Minstrel show, looking at its obvious potential for accusations of racism fair and square in the face, just as the American people themselves had to at the time. It follows the structure of the Minstrel show in great detail, with the performers sitting in a semi-circle, the characters of Bones and Tambo (named after their musical instruments) on the far ends each playing the fool, and with the whole thing MC’d by an interlocutor, in this case – unusually – played by a white actor, to strengthen the suggestion of racial injustice. It’s a bold strategy, but it really works, as, while revelling in the immense talent and skills of the performers, enjoying the comedy, and loving the music and dancing, nevertheless you spend a lot of the show considering how very un-PC all this is today.
But that’s the point – it’s that telling juxtaposition between what’s appropriate on a stage and what occurred in 1930s Alabama that is the driving force behind this show. Whilst the content is disturbing, the style is pizzazzy, and the challenge for the audience is to appreciate both equally. It’s full of surprises. There’s a moment near the end when some of the characters are telling the audience directly what was to become of them in the years and decades to follow. One character says he became a cop so he could finally find out what it was like to hold and use a gun – cue genuine laugh from the audience. Then you find out what he did with it and it was one of those Ayckbournian moments when your laughter gets caught in your throat. The ever-present unnamed lady, watching the action, occasionally adding gestures and reactions, seems an irrelevant and unnecessary add-on for much of the time until you finally realise her significance, which beautifully links the whole Scottsboro saga to the rest of the fight for racial equality in America.
It’s not surprising this is such a great production. The music and lyrics are by Kander and Ebb, creators of such masterpieces as Cabaret and Chicago (although Mrs C will point out they also wrote Curtains which we saw on Broadway in 2008 and which she, in particular, hated). Scottsboro Boys was actually one of the last shows they worked on together, as Fred Ebb died in 2004, and composer John Kander had to complete the lyrics to a few of the songs himself. Those songs have beautiful melodies but hard-hitting lyrics which bring you up short, as you might expect from the sweet/sour structure of the whole show.
Then you have direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, who put together the amazing Contact that we saw in 2002 (perhaps we should draw a veil over the fact that she also worked on the Menier’s Paradise Found – not an easy show by any means but within some rewrites of being good). Phil Cornwell’s orchestra recreates that American Dixie sound beautifully, with plenty of banjo twanging and high-falutin’ fiddling, and it’s all set on an eminently useful blank stage, with just some very versatile chairs that can link together to suggest any structure you want (plus they’re also good for just sitting on.) The backdrop consists of a couple of massive picture frames suspended without the aid of a spirit level, nicely suggestive of having to look at life through wonky angles.
Added to all that, you have an amazing cast made up of some of the finest singers and dancers you could ever hope to grace any stage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, dressed to the nines like a Robertson’s Golly, combining great physical comedy with verbal dexterity to recreate the traditional Minstrel show roles but doubling up as sheriffs, lawyers, attorneys and guards to emphasise the funny/serious contrast. They are an incredible double act. James T Lane, wonderful as Richie in A Chorus Line, continues to show his amazing dance skills as Ozie Powell; and gives a really heart-breaking performance after his character survives being shot by a guard. We both really enjoyed the performance of Keenan Munn-Francis as the youngest boy Eugene Williams, showing terrific song and dance skills as well as great comic timing – he’s definitely going to be Someone To Watch. But in fact all the cast perform with great commitment, juggling the dual aspects of tough injustice with sheer entertainment.
Veteran actor Julian Glover, whom I have admired ever since I saw him play Coriolanus at the RSC in 1978, gives a powerful performance as The Interlocutor. A southern gentleman dressed all in white with a touch of the Uncle Sam; slightly manic, physically still strong but with a sense of slight fragility, playing the show-must-go-on role of Master of Ceremonies, whilst occasionally stepping out of his bonhomie to become savagely aggressive to his colleagues, it’s a brilliant performance. But for me the star of the show was undoubtedly the splendid Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson – a brilliant stage presence, great voice, and with amazing powers of communicating the character’s dignity and sadness. I know he’s had some success in America but he was new to me, and I have no hesitation in saying A Star Is Born. Overall, The Scottsboro Boys is a brilliantly envisioned show, masterfully presented and performed with wit, pathos and a helluva lot of great song and dance. We loved it.
PS. It’s a pet hate of mine, so I must say it – I would have preferred it to have an interval. At 1 hour and 45 minutes non-stop, no matter how good it is, I always end up shifting the buttocks and stifling (or giving in to) a yawn. Yes I’m old fashioned, but I like to stretch the legs, get some oxygen flowing, have a chance to chat about it so far with Mrs C, use the facilities and so on. The modern trend is to rush through the show in one gulp so you can get out of the theatre more quickly and Do Other Things. Apparently I’m in the minority by preferring to have intervals. I can live with that.