Posted by: strugglesome | February 7, 2012

Good Times: Philadelphia Theater Company Presents The Scottsboro Boys

I don’t want to generalize, but sometimes it seems like every single problem in the known universe was caused by a small group of white guys. They have spread diseases, massacred much larger populations, destroyed whole ecosystems, and, and this is the worst part, convinced the rest of the world that it’s really okay to do those things, if you are, in fact, a white guy! It might just be the white man’s greatest trick, convincing the world that not only does he exist, but that his existence is just straight up better than everyone else’s.  Nice work if you can get it, right?

And so when one discusses a minstrel show, or even a show modeled after a minstrel show like John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson’s magnificent and vibrant The Scottsboro Boys, one can’t help but marvel at the boldness of the caucasian fellow. Only the arrogance of the pale-skinned male of the human species would allow him to think that not only his he the master of the universe, but he can actually be better at being black then, say, a black person. Of course, many would say that race and even gender is in and of itself a performance, but let’s not give the entertainers of the Jim Crow era that much credit, and call a slur a slur. So if this musical, currently running at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, alternately fascinates and causes feelings of strong discomfort, well, that’s kind of the point. Regardless of what Glee has taught us, just because there’s music doesn’t mean anyone is really having fun.

Staged in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s impossibly deep proscenium, this production is, in theory, a carbon copy of the original Broadway presentation, originally directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, and re-created by Jeff Whiting. Apart from three heavy metal (or metal-looking) frames, ranging from slightly off-kilter to completely askew, and a pile of silver painted chairs, the stage is bare, bald even, in the garish glow of Ken Billington’s crisp and clear lighting design. But that’s not to say that Beowulf Boritt’s set isn’t effective, in fact, it’s sparseness makes for a blank canvas and its few elements are used beautifully, allowing the chairs to become a prison cell, a crowded boxcar, a courtroom and, of course, a stage, seamlessly and elegantly. Effective and bright costumes by Toni-Leslie James are plain when they need to be and bright and gaudy with chinz when the occasion calls for it.  And Peter Hylenski’s sound is well-balanced and effective, which is the most you can hope for from a musical, right? Of course Eric Ebbenga’s music direction and conduction makes that easy, and his talented orchestra (consisting of Aaron Irwin, Dennis Wasko, Bob Gale, Harry Solotti, Alex Cutler-Fetkewicz, Allan Slutsky, Mark Christofaro and Evan Solot) tackles bo-jangly numbers like “Minstral March” and sweet soulful tunes like “Go Back Home” with equal grace. In it totality, the design works beautifully for the show, if not for the space. It might just be a bit cramped in this particular theater, but it’s so well done that you barely even notice.

And then there is the show itself. controversial in the extreme, it opens with a catchy tune and a parade of ethnic stereotypes. Lead by Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) and Mr. Bones (JC Montgomery) who spit out sho nuffs and yessirs like watermelon seeds, the “boys” and The Lady (Kaci Fannin, in a silent but gently moving role) watch carefully as The Interlocutor (Ron Holgate), a sole white man in a room full of people of color, runs the show. When he says jump they say how high, after a dirty joke, or too. And when he says it’s time to tell the tale of the Scottsboro boys, well, tell the story they must! But it’s going to be the true story this time, see? One true story in a sea of white washing. And that means it’s not going to be pretty.

The story is, of course, given that it chronicles a racially charged incident in the American South, an extremely painful one. In March of 1931, 9 young men riding a freight car in Alabama, looking for work, are arrested, and accused of raping two white women. Logistics  and patent falsehood aside, the mean, or rather, boys, since none of them was above the age of 19, were imprisoned, and despite countless appeals, widespread public protests, and at least one woman recanting her rape accusation, plus, you know, their obvious innocence, the boys proceeded to spend the next 45 years living (or dying) under the sentence of guilty. Of course, they were eventually exonerated in 1976, by which point most of them had died. So, you know, at least there’s a happy ending.

The bulk of the performance falls on the slim shoulders of the boys themselves, who are, in a word, magnificent. From 11-year-old Nile Bullock, whose tap number with Kendrick Jones and Clinton Roane, “Electric Chair”, is unrealistically awesome, to Rodney Hicks, whose performance as Haywood Patterson, the unofficial hero of the piece, is tear-inducing and compelling. Each young actor works hard, but seamlessly, with one role, like David Bazemore, Derrick Cobey and Eric Jackson, or many roles, like Andrew Arrington and Gilbert L Bailey prancing and preening as the “Alabama Ladies” who accuse the boys of rape, or McClendon and Montgomery’s powerhouse performances jumping into every role under the sun to keep the story on track. And if Holgate’s performance is a little tentative and frail, well, we want to see him defeated anyway, so that’s not a problem, really.

Now, given the serious injustices of this story, the devastating effect this had on the lives of 9 people, and larger tale it tells of the United States’ legacy of discrimination, subjugation and marginalization, it might, and did, shock many to see this story told as a bright and shiny minstrel show. It’s important to note that there is no actual blackface in The Scottsboro Boys. In fact, there is something far more astonishing, that is, black men pretending to be white people, male AND female. Jump back, Jack! That’s just insanity, right? But while some might see this treatment of the story as mildly derisive at best and blatantly offensive at worst, others, myself included, find it a fascinating, beautifully crafted and painfully subversive examination of the way we perform race, gender and history itself. If history is written by the victors, then it is certainly written, largely, by the white guy holding the gun. Or, given that this is Alabama and therefore lynching territory, the length of rope.

So to turn that on its head and present a show in which we here in modern society have to witness the injustice and humiliation of this theatrical form, stripped of nostalgia and shown in the harsh light of reality, well, I can imagine no more effective way to celebrate these 9 people and their lives. This musical restores to each person dignity and humanity, because it tells their stories, it names their names and gives them a stage upon which they can perform their lives. Would the original Scottsboro boys have liked this musical? Who knows, they aren’t around to see it. But let’s be realistic, many people wouldn’t even know of their existence without this show. It brings to light a dark chapter of our shared heritage, one that many would prefer to believe is over, or worse, never happened. And it does so in a way that transcends frivolity, even as it cleverly masquerades as something fun. Which is, of course, the only option those who exist in the margins, the edges, the outskirts of history ever have. Make them laugh, make them sing along, and they’ll never notice that you’re actually saying something serious. And when you do it as well as this show does it, you leave your audience smiling but troubled, thrilled at the skill but pained at the subject. That, my friends, is entertainment.

Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of The Scottsboro Boys runs from now until the 19th of February. Tickets are available here.

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