Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"The Scottsboro Boys" at Signature Theater

In 2011, I watched the Tony Awards as I often did, mainly for a glimpse of what shows I was missing out on. Cast albums I should pick up and experience. And one of the performances was this, for the nominated musical "The Scottsboro Boys"
Even though Google existed, I just bought it and went. I had not been familiar with this specific case, I'm not even sure I had done enough due diligence to realize it was a real case. But in many ways I think that is the best way to approach "The Scottsboro Boys".
The musical is from Kander and Ebb with book by David Thompson. It uses two things to lure you in, the framing device of an African American woman waiting for transport in a clearly segregated station, and the minstrel show she unleashes. One of the performers in the minstrel asks if they can tell the real truth this time, giving the audience the sense that there are layers to this story. It is the cheeriest, most gorgeous harmonies that lead you into the story of nine African American boys found riding a train with two white women. In order to escape charges, the white women claim they were gang raped. The white women are played by two of the cast members playing the boys which tells the audience exactly which side to be on and of course also ties in the the minstrel idea. Similarly the white police officers are played by black cast members. So these black actors are, in minstrel form, portraying caricatures of another race. A writer friend felt this was an important piece and did a Twitter thread about this.  
The nine boys (and one of them was twelve at the start, so boys is the correct form of address) are found guilty and sentenced to death but then granted additional trials when it was found that their legal representation was inadequate. One of the women recants her story, but the other continues to show up to each new trial. 
Throughout the show, the African American woman stands up and looks at the audience, or intervenes or comforts one of the boys who has been beaten. She is there to keep reminding you that it looks fun, but is terrible, in case you have forgotten. 
The cast was wonderful. The Signature Theater version left the tambourines in the orchestra but had the boys shake their hands like they had tambourines, which created an intriguing layer to the real/not real effect. 
I know Kander and Ebb have done other things, but I thought a lot about how this compared to "Chicago". In many ways, both shows are peppy, jazz hands looks at how white woman tears can pervert justice. In "Chicago" you are mostly on the women's side, but the show does not let you forget the collateral damage. "The Scottsboro Boys" is entirely about that damage. Yes, it's clear that the two women were facing charges of their own had they not shifted blame. One of them sings about the challenges of being a woman in a man's world. It also takes a poke at Southern nostalgia for good old days, and Northern allyship in the my black driver says I'm great way of things. And a peek at anti-semitism too. 
It does the thing many musicals do, just a little more overtly, it lures you in with tambourines and horns to get you to think about a miscarriage of justice and the show itself intentionally links itself to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, the Signature version went a step further having a cast member at the end appear in a Black Lives Matter shirt. 
I won the Todaytix lottery for discounted tickets to the show, but it runs through July 1st.