|The Cast of "Scottsboro Boys" returns through January 22nd|
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)
John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have provided a considerable number of musical theater productions that have often involved a good deal of risk. The musical Scottsboro Boys was controversial even in its title, echoing how a group of African American youth aged thirteen to nineteen were referenced as “boys”. Based on the true story of how these young men were unjustly jailed and (mis)treated, Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway in 2010 and lasted just 49 performances, despite the reputation of Kander and Ebb (Music and Lyrics, their last collaboration), and David Thompson (Book), and despite being nominated for twelve Tony Awards including Best Musical (unfortunately for this show, in the same season as “Book of Mormon”). Its genius was to tell the story via a minstrel show, but this may also have led to its undoing. Intended as satire with minstrelsy songs, jokes, and dancing, and, yes, even blackface, it was picketed by people who never actually saw the show, and thus missed the point, namely the exposing of the evils of the system. Kander and Ebb once again revisited the Great Depression and the racial unrest of the thirties (as they had in “Steel Pier”, and, much before that, “Flora the Red Menace”), all held together in this show by an interlocutor as the host speaking directly to the audience. What resulted is a piece of musical theater like no other, in a class by itself, arguably Kander's and Ebbs' most inventive and unforgettable work.
Though the story is on record as part of this nation's checkered history, its anonymity requires a bit of a synopsis. (Fair warning: there are a few almost-spoilers). The lights come up on a lady (Shalaye Cavillo) carrying a cake box and waiting for a bus, which is late. She smells the cake, bringing back memories. The scene changes to a minstrel show in 1931, arranged by the Interlocutor (Russell Garrett), who introduces the nine youths, including Haywood Patterson (De'Lon Grant), who hop a freight train through Alabama. Just outside of Scottsboro, the men are pulled off the train, along with two white girls Victoria (Darrell Morris, Jr.) and Ruby (Isaiah Reynolds). Afraid they'll be arrested for prostitution, the girls accuse the men of rape, who are then brought to trial. Found guilty, they are condemned to death. The youngest, Eugene (Wakeem Jones) has nightmares about the electric chair. Just before the scheduled executions, word comes that the Supreme Court has overturned the verdicts and they are given a chance for another trial. One of the accused, young Roy (Sheldon Henry), teaches Haywood to write. And write he does, about their plight, making many in the North outraged. The Communist Party takes up their defense by hiring famous lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (Brandon G. Green) to take their case, raising some anti-Semitic issues. In her testimony, Ruby admits the men are innocent, but they are found guilty and sent back to prison. Haywood attempts unsuccessfully to escape to see his dying mother. After several additional trials, all with guilty verdicts, and after even Victoria recants, a deal is made to release four of the youngest boys, leaving the remaining five in custody. As one character blurts out, “you are guilty because of the way you look”. Haywood is promised parole if he admits guilt. He refuses and is sent back to jail where he dies twenty-one years later, having written their story. The Interlocutor announces the finale of the show but this time the Scottsboro Boys refuse to do the cakewalk, wondering if it has all been worth it and if people will remember.
Haywood was urged to “write it all down, the truth” even as he was asked “who's gonna learn from it?” . The lights come up on the lady who has been waiting, who then demonstrates the impact of their story on her and on history. The tagline for this production describes it as “a true story that changed history”. Rounding out the team are the characters of Ozie (Reynolds again), Andy (Darren Bunch), Willie (Taavon Gamble), Olen (Steven Martin) and Clarence Norris/Preacher (Aron Michael Ray). And then there are Mr. Bones (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Mr. Tambo (Green again), about whom more later.
What initially grabs one is the quality and variety of the score, encompassing fast ragtime to slow rag to folk song and of course cakewalk. There are echoes of Mr. Cellophane (from Chicago) in the plaintive Nothin' and Ruby's song Never too Late (to atone) as well as You Can't Do Me and Southern Days, their a cappela revision of a long-revered plantation song. Some of the subjects in the show's numbers, like parts of the book, are discomforting and macabre (“Daddy hangin' from a tree”, the electric chair or burning crosses), intentionally so. Yet there are also hearfelt songs like the bittersweet Go Back Home, the best number in the show, and one of the finest in the Kander and Ebbs pantheon. The score and book are deceptively upbeat in the initial minstrel show set-up, but they soon turn darker and more daring. The structure subliminally follows that of traditional minstrelsy: an introductory song-and-dance routine, then what was called the “olio” (a series of entertaining bits) and the “afterpiece” in the form of an extended skit or burlesque. But, as with their other serious works, especially Cabaret and Chicago, the message is as vital as the medium.
This is a brilliant piece of theater both in conception and (excuse the expression) execution. Wonderfully directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with fine
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, and rousing Choreography by Ilyse Robbins, with very effective Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Donald Remedios, it's a creative marvel. But its true glory is in the performances. Parent and Green, in historically stereotypical roles as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, excel in other multiple roles, as does Reynolds as Ozie and especially as Ruby. Grant is mesmerizing as the central figure of the case (though artistic license is at work here, as the real Haywood was focused on because he was the “ugliest” of the group, certainly not an adjective anyone would ever apply to Grant). But then, every member of the cast is a stunner, each with great vocal and acting chops and (you should also excuse this expression) rhythm.
SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Daigneault in particular, have always been known for their expert hand with musical theater. This may not be the best-known work by Kander and Ebb, but it deserves to be seen by any serious theater buff. With its sardonic black comedy (one final expression you should excuse), awe-inspiring dancing and all-around transcendence, it's the finest work thus far this season. “The truth: who's gonna learn from it?” Guess.