A Review of “The Scottsboro Boys”

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A Review of “The Scottsboro Boys”

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Last Saturday evening, we had the pleasure of attending the musical The Scottsboro Boys at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. The show was truly fantastic, and its unique method of retelling the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys made it one of a kind.

The musical premiered at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theater on March 10, 2010, and initially received overwhelmingly positive feedback. Response to the show’s Broadway adaptation in October of the same year, however, was not as encouraging. Critics lambasted the production for its seemingly lighthearted depiction of the Scottsboro Boys trial. Meanwhile, the general public expressed outrage at its use of minstrelsy, an old style of entertainment that originated in the early nineteenth century South and continued on into the Jim Crow era.

Minstrel shows featured white performers in blackface who presented wildly stereotyped depictions of “normal” African American life. Typical minstrel shows starred three key characters – Mr. Interlocutor, an emcee of sorts; and his two assistants, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo – as well as a bevy of other staple caricatures designed to invalidate black plantation and household life. Even modern day elements of popular culture have ties to minstrelsy. Ever wonder why Mickey Mouse wears white gloves? He’s modeled after minstrel performers, who wore gloves to remind themselves not to smear their makeup by touching their faces.

What many of the people upset at the show did not realize was that The Scottsboro Boys is a parody of traditional minstrel culture, with an all African American cast as opposed to white performers in blackface. Its purpose is not to recreate the effect of minstrelsy, but rather to offer a commentary on it. In fact, it is likely that the majority of those protesting the show never actually saw it.

After failing to muster any substantial amount of success on Broadway, the musical made its way to Europe, where it debuted in London in 2013. There, it garnered far better reviews, even winning Best Musical at the 2014 London Evening Standard Awards. Now, it’s back in the States, and appears to have received a much warmer welcome this go around.

Johan Persson
The Scottsboro Boys at the London West End

If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the Scottsboro Boys, you’re not alone. Though a tragedy, it has been largely sidelined since the 1960’s, only experiencing a revival in interest recently. On a chill spring morning in 1931, nine African-American boys- Charles Weems, Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Andy Wright, Roy Wright, Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Eugene Williams, and Willie Roberson- between the ages of 12 and 19 hopped on a train out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, headed anywhere work could be found. On the train, the some of the boys got into a fight with a gang of white boys, who wired their stories to authorities farther up the tracks. When the train pulled into Paint Rock, Alabama, the local police gathered the nine boys and imprisoned them in the nearby Scottsboro jail. Also on the train were two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. When interviewed by the police for statements, they claimed that the nine boys had raped and assaulted them, starting the long ordeal of the Scottsboro Boys.

Over the next fifteen years, the Scottsboro Boys would undergo numerous trials, squalid prison conditions, and flagrantly racist accusations. One of the accusers, Ruby Bates, admitted to lying about rape. The lawyer called in to defend the Boys, Samuel Leibowitz, was a Jew who faced strongly anti-Semitic audiences. One of the Boys was shot and given permanent brain damage during an escape attempt. The Communist Party attempted to bribe the other female witness, Victoria Price, to withdraw her testimony. The prosecution in the case relied on racism and southern biases. By 1946, all of the Scottsboro boys had escaped prison or been freed, but that did not guarantee happy endings. Roy Wright committed suicide while serving in the merchant marine. Haywood Patterson died of cancer in a Michigan prison. Most of the other boys disappeared into history. Clarence Norris, the longest-surviving Scottsboro Boy, died in 1979, but the trials of the Boys live on as one of the most obvious examples of racism and abuse of power in the Jim Crow south.

The Scottsboro Boys in prison

The performance of The Scottsboro Boys that we watched featured Tru Verret-Fleming as Haywood Patterson, who was the central character of the story. Mr. Verret-Fleming gave an excellent performance as Patterson in conveying passionately the senses of bravado, despair, and fatigue that at various times took over his personality. Marc Moritz as Mr. Interlocutor also gave a darkly comedic performance as the performer most similar to the original racism of the minstrel style. This was a sharp contrast with the blacks-as-whites plot of the modern production, which simply increased the sense of tragedy felt by audience as the fate of the Scottsboro Boys grew ever bleaker. Steven Etienne as Roy Wright likewise deserves his plaudits. Roy Wright was the youngest and smartest of the Boys, and his transformation from naïveté to sad familiarity with the harsh reality of life is distressing. Throughout the roughly two hour production, our eyes were glued to the stage, and while Pittsburgh Playhouse’s show ended on the 24th, we encourage anyone interested in the play or the history to look into other performances in the area and to read some of the books that have been published about the story (especially Clarence Norris’ personal account entitled The Last of the Scottsboro Boys).

The Scottsboro Boys was based off a book by David Thompson. Music and lyrics were written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Original direction and choreography were by Susan Stroman. The Pittsburgh Playhouse version was directed and choreographed by Tomé Cousin with assistance from associate choreographer Jeremy Czarniak. Musical direction was orchestrated by Douglas Levine. The other musicians were Joe Herndon on the trumpet, Dan Heasley on flute and clarinet, Kevin McManus on trombone, Pierce Cook on tuba, and P.J. Gatch as the percussion department. Scenic design, costume design, sound design, and light design were done by Britton Mauk, K.J. Gilmer, Steve Shapiro, and Andrew David Ostrowski, respectively. Heather Ankley was the stage manager. The director of photography was Alicia Digiorgi. Steven Etienne played Roy Wright. Joseph Fedore played Eugene Williams. Jonathan Blake Flemings played Olen Montgomery. Ivy Fox played The Lady. Scott Kelley played Andy Wright. Tony Lorrich II played Clarence Norris. Billy Mason played Mr. Bones. Marc Moritz was the Interlocutor. Charles Weems was played by Jared Smith, and Haywood Patterson by Tru Verret-Fleming. Lamont Walker II was in the role of Ozie Powell. Finally, JR Whittington was Mr. Tambo.

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A Review of “The Scottsboro Boys”