“Strip me naked. Take my name. Make me an animal. So you can kill me. Then forget all about me. Like I never happened. Like I don’t matter.”
No, those unsettling words are not reactions to a racially charged recent Tweet from some supposed celebrity or a national elected official. They are words meant to jostle an audience into paying attention. They were composed in 2010.
Those words are dialogue spoken by the character Haywood Patterson (commandingly portrayed by Lamont Walker II), one of the nine Scottsboro Boys, in the in-your-face, challenging, and thought-provoking musical The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with book by David Thompson. With its subject matter, its dialogue, and especially its inflamed, unforgiving upbeat music and energy-rich minstrel choreographed stylizations and poses, the show is not meant to be timid. And, a minstrel setting for a show in this day and age, really?
Based upon historical events, Signature Theatre’s The Scottsboro Boys is directed with civility and restraint by Joe Calarco. The production walks a fine line, becoming an unwavering production full of about twenty mostly prickly scenes that dare the audience to look away from the stage. Overall, it is a musical like a spur into a rib cage, or a burr under a saddle–especially now as America grapples with its enormous divides about race and racism.
How timely, that opening night was the same day that the Washington Post ran this headline: “Most Americans say race relations are a major problem, but few discuss it with friends and family.”
Who were the real Scottsboro Boys? They were nine black teenagers (one only 12 at the time of arrest) accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. Was a fair trial possible? Well, no. They were found guilty and initially sentenced to death by electric chair, even with flimsy evidence and a recanted testimony from one of the original accusers about the alleged rape. The black youth were tried and retried multiple times. The case was national news. There was even intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court. But, again and again, they were found guilty by Alabama juries. From this information, Kander, Ebb and Thompson created their musical, The Scottsboro Boys.
With 18 musical numbers, some toe-tappers, under the music direction of Brian P. Whitted with a talented eight-member band and energy-rich choreography by Jared Grimes, the Signature production of The Scottsboro Boys is awash with a lampooning minstrel style that takes on white supremacy while also alternating with more conventional theater devices.
Signature’s excellent cast of actors/singers/dancers features Lamont Walker II, Jonathan Adriel, Malik Akil, Iyona Blake, Christopher Bloch, Chaz Alexander Coffin, Felicia Curry, C.K. Edwards, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Andre Hinds, Darrell Purcell Jr., Aramie Payton, Joseph Monroe Webb and Stephen Scott Wormley. Many of the cast members have multiple characters to portray; including women and white folk, Northerners and Southerners.
The Scottsboro Boys is also a show within a show that the cast and the creative team telegraph to the audience from its opening scene, as an older African-American woman known as The Lady (Felicia Curry) sitting in a bus (conveyed by three chairs) notices a detailed model of a closed theater. She peers inside the model to quickly become enveloped into the model as it opens to become the setting for the production. Another clue is the regular use of a theatrical framing device (Daniel Conway is the scenic designer, with exquisitely evocative lighting design by Sherrice Mojgani). The arch of the proscenium stage is moved about to become the gateway into the minstrel theater show, and at other times the gateway to the real world.
How can the audience know how to take the many minstrel moments? That hinges on the audience listening closely to the dialogue and expressions of the actors. The Southern Gentleman Interlocutor (a honed Christopher Bloch) begins with this: “I’m host and interlocutor, the master of these folks.” He then demands that the cast be seated. They at first comply, Soon the characters begin to question the Interlocutor’s authority. “Can we tell it like it really happened?” they ask. And from that question, the show takes off into its astounding arc with truth-telling as its weapon. And it is truth-telling while the show’s characters perform high kicks and strut a cake walk to find a way to survive under the gaze of the powerful. Until Darrell Purcell Jr. in his role as Scottsboro Boy Clarence Norris states in no uncertain terms, “I’m gonna stand up like that one day! I’m gonna stare down that white man ‘til he blinks!”
The truth-telling ends with a final powerful scene as the cast turns to face the audience as the music builds. (I will not ruin it for those who will be coming to see The Scottsboro Boys for the first time, or those who may have seen a previous production, as I did in San Francisco some years ago).
Several musical numbers to highlight include “Nothing” sung by Lamont Walker as Haywood about truth-telling as a weapon of honor; “Electric Chair,” a taunting nightmare to scare the sentenced to death Eugene (a duly frightened Aramie Payton) as to what is in store for him; “Go Back Home,” a mournful ballad about lost lives seeking home again; and Walker’s “You Can’t Do Me,” a powerful anthem of power taken back. “You can’t do me like you done me, Like you did me before…I ain’t gonna take it anymore, I won’t stand still, my hands in my pocket. What was a whisper, is now a roar.”
If you are seeking a soft focus, gauzy fabric evening, or something to carry you back to some mythical age, then look elsewhere; The Scottsboro Boys is not for you. No, not every scene is powerful. Not every song is daring. Not all the comic antics, including eye-rolling routines from minstrel characters like Mr. Bones (Stephen Scott Wormley) and Mr. Tambo (Chaz Alexander Coffin) will do more than bring groans. But, for me, so what. In the current time, softness to combat coarseness does nothing for me.
The Scottsboro Boys is fearless and often haunting. Will it be a transformative experience? For many, that is doubtful. But damn, I am glad that over one and a half years ago, Signature decided to produce it. The production fits well in these current days of rage. For me, I wanted to be sharply preached to; I wanted to see anger. I wanted words to be flames from those most affected. The timid does not feed my soul.
Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.
- “Minstrel March”
- “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey! Commencing in Chattanooga”
- “Alabama Ladies”
- “Nothin’ “
- “Electric Chair”
- “Go Back Home”
- “Shout! “
- “Make Friends with the Truth”
- “Never Too Late”
- “Financial Advice”
- “Southern Days”
- “Alabama Ladies (Reprise)”
- “It’s Gonna Take Time”
- “Zat So”
- “You Can’t Do Me”
- “The Scottsboro Boys”