|Members of the Cast of SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Scottsboro Boys"|
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)
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.