Monday, November 16, 2020

Thoughts on Other's Thoughts about "The Scottsboro Boys"

I wanted to take a longer time to ruminate a little on this oral history of "The Scottsboro Boys".  First, this history is amazing, both for the peek into the creator's visions, the original casts feelings about the production, and some coverage of the response and reaction.  
I liked the production when I had a chance to see it staged locally.  And certainly at this point the show exists and no one is putting that back into the bottle. The only thing to be discussed is should it continue to be performed. And again, since I have seen it, my thoughts are clear.  But the thing I found interesting, is that the creative team feels very strongly that they were misunderstood in their intentions and well, I'm not sure that they were.  
The show attempts a really tricky thing - it takes a specific form of entertainment that was originally used to create the ultimate in punching down comedy.  Minstrel shows made fun of black people, Jewish people, and probably many more that the performers knew could get a laugh from the audience.  The show is trying to reclaim this. To take a case most people did not learn about in their history class, even though it created changes to the justice system that exist today, and let the minstrels be the folks who really never got to tell their own stories.  And having Black actors play the white police, the white lawyers, and the white women who are accusing the boys.  
But there's an interesting layer of having a mostly white creative team shepherd a reclaiming of something that traditionally harmed Black people.  Am I saying white people can't tell stories about Black people?  No.  But the idea - as one of the creators says in the history that well, I wonder if they would have protested us if we were Black - well, that's not a neutral question, right?  Because let's face it, we have all seen and heard stories that were told by people who meant very well, and who fumbled in part because they did not have the cultural know how needed to tell a story.  And it is not unfair for people to decide that they can't trust a mostly white team to tell a particular story with the care and nuance needed.  And it is not unfair for folks to be upset that a mostly white creative team got an opportunity to put on a show with only one white character when that is something Black creators have not had access and opportunity to do.  
One of the things I did not talk about in my post about the performance I saw was the incredible awkwardness of watching that show.  Not because of the cast - who were wonderful.  But because the show is trying to essentially lull you with typical musical rhythms into jokes about injustice.  And so many of the things that occur that are joke shaped, if you will, are quite awful.  But of course, humans also laugh when things are too awkward, too scary, and even sometimes just too much.  So as an audience member the places you decide to laugh and the places the person next to you, or rows away from you may be very different.  And you have no way to press pause and be like - are you laughing because it's funny or because it's awful. 
I think this is also why it had great success at small theaters.  The audiences for small theaters are often more aware that some shows are fun and some shows are to make you think and some shows do both.  And small theaters often utilize lobby space for coordinated exhibits and other think pieces.  They use the program to provide context.  In the oral history they talked about showing a documentary to kids and parents before they agreed to the show in their school. That's a lot of pre-work.  
Media often has to signal to the audience what they are in for, and I think perhaps small theaters are better suited to that level of work.  Of course, part of it could be that telling chat with the promoters who were like, yeah, we didn't know how to pitch a show about kids on trial.