Racism, sexism and antisemitism aren’t necessarily topics one would set to music, but The Scottsboro Boys isn’t necessarily a musical that would end up on Broadway. The arrestingly powerful production, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, is an admiringly inventive show that should be commended for its daring vision and creativity.
With a book by David Thompson and music by the team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys tells the story of nine African-American men who were falsely arrested for charges of gang rape of two prostitutes. A disarming combination of comedy, sympathy, amusement and horror, the story is told through the form of a minstrel show. John Cullum, the only white member of the cast, plays the Interlocutor, narrating the show with the help of his assistants Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon). A stunning introductory number is followed by the presentation of the accusation and arrest, where the song “Alabama Ladies” brilliantly depicts the hypocrisy and sexism present in the idea of Southern womanhood. Christian Dante White and James T. Lane, who play the women, give inspired performances as the accusers.
The boys are threatened with lynching and the electric chair while in jail, and they are saved from execution when the Supreme Court overturns two of the convictions. A series of trials stretches over several years, and eventually the four younger men are released from prison. The remaining men eventually are released on parole, except for Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry) who refuses to plead guilty and dies in prison. Patterson is the only character who is actually developed throughout the show, and Henry gives an impressive performance as an illiterate, tortured, and steadfastly moral man. His powerful stage presence and robust voice are well-suited for his songs, especially the particularly moving “Go Back Home.”
Despite the truly touching moments of sincerity, the majority of the show is presented in satire, and it can be difficult to simultaneously juggle the emotions of amusement and horror that The Scottsboro Boys inspires. The stereotypes of minstrel shows, which were performed by white actors in blackface makeup and presented insulting caricatures of black people, and the knowledge that the racism presented in this show is based upon actual events, are skillfully integrated in the script and music, but their impact remains jarring and disturbing. The visually arresting and emotionally gripping song “Electric Chair,” a tap-dance number performed after the boys are thrown into jail, is nothing short of horrifying.
Satirizing moral hypocrisy is nothing new to Kander and Ebb, who are known for their hit musical Chicago. But in Chicago, the stakes were not nearly as high as in The Scottsboro Boys, nor does Chicago have as tragic an ending. None of the men released from prison are able to rebuild their lives; many become alcoholics, others commit suicide, and Haywood dies in prison after learning to write and penning a book about his experiences. The presentation of the story is brilliantly satiric, but it is still a show about the destruction of the lives of innocent men.
“Look what we’ve got for you,” the boys sing energetically as they enter the stage for the opening number. You have no choice. During this show, it’s impossible to look away.