Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.
The Scottsboro Boys, an extraordinary musical, mounted by SpeakEasy Stage Company at Boston’s Calderwood Pavilion, recounts one of the most shameful racist events in US history. In 1931, during the depth of the Great Depression, nine black male teenagers who had hopped a freight train were falsely accused of rape by two white women. Arrest, threats of lynching, and a one-day trial followed with the young defendants found guilty and sentenced to death. The NAACP and the Communist Party of the USA appealed successfully to the Supreme Court and another trial was scheduled. Again the defendants were found guilty and another appeal was made. The trials only came to an end years later when the state of Alabama where the Scottsboro boys were held could no longer afford to prosecute the defendants. Traumatised by their treatment, the Scottsboro boys continued to struggle and suffer even when freed.
Although composers/lyricists John Kander and Fred Ebb were noted for the social/political viewpoint of their musicals – think Cabaret – taking on and developing this ignominious piece of history into a show took courage and ingenuity. They told the story through a minstrel show, itself a bigoted form of entertainment which derives its humor from deriding black males. Historically, minstrel shows were performed by white men made up in blackface as caricatures of black men. They sang, danced, and did comic routines, all of which presented exaggerated racial stereotypes. A character called the Interlocutor, who represented a white gentleman, ran the proceedings.
The Scottsboro Boys is double and triple cast with the “boys” performing the minstrel show as well as enacting their own narrative, and most of the villainous white characters. All the actors are black with the exception of Russell Garrett, the Interlocutor, the Judge, and the Governor who plays all these roles with an air of superiority. The only woman (Shalaye Camillo) opens the show sitting in a chair facing the audience and holding a cake box, a visual reference to the cake walk the minstrels perform. She then moves to stage left where sits silently watching, getting up once to dance, and returning to her original place at the very end where we find ourselves in the Civil Rights Movement for a moment. The Scottsboro Boys turns the minstrel show on its head as the actors mock the white characters they play.
The young talented cast is extraordinary. Energetic performers sing and dance with style and are strong actors as well, summoning up both tears and laughter in the audience. De’lon Grant is a standout with his strong voice and presence as Haywood Patterson, the Scottsboro boy, who underwent more trials than the others. Patterson entered jail illiterate, learned to read, and wrote a book about his experience. Darrell Morris, Jr. who plays both Charles Weems and Victoria Price, one of the women who accuses the nine boys of raping her and Isaiah Reynolds as Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates, the woman who renounced her lie, are equally good in their female roles.
The show is very well directed and paced by Paul Daigneault, while Ilse Robbins’ choreography is vibrant.
The Scottsboro Boys plays through January 22, 2017 at Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 222 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
The Scottsboro Boys, Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by David Thompson
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Music Direction by Matthew Stern
Choreography by Ilyse Robbins
Scenic Design by Eric Levenson
Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurlieo
Lighting Design by Daisy Long
Sound Design by David Remedios
Fight Choreography by Angie Jepson
Darren Bunch, Shalaye Camillo, Taavon Gamble, Russell Garrett, De’lon Grant, Brandon G. Green, Sheldon Henry, Wakeem Jones, Steven Martin, Darrell Morris, Jr., Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Aaron Michael Ray, and Isaiah Reynolds