The Scottsboro Boys were nine African American teenagers who were accused of raping two white American women on a train near Alabama in 1931. The boys were falsely accused of the crime, hastily tried and sentenced to death in one of the most outrageous disregards of due process in history. The landmark set of legal cases deriving from this incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial.
It was a story understood by few until The Scottsboro Boys premiered on Broadway in 2010 with dynamic music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who were never shy about attacking a social issue head on), plus a powerful book by David Thompson. Joe Calarco directs The Scottsboro Boys in a six-week run of the musical at Signature Theatre, May 22-July 1.
Among the talented ensemble is Lamont Walker II as Haywood Paterson, one of the central figures of the controversy of the nine teens. Walker admits that until studying the musical in school, he fell into the category of those who hadn’t known much about the travesty.
“I’ve been studying the show since I was in college. Not too often as a young black man do I get to partake in a show that is about young black men,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my journey as a performer for a while now and I think it’s very important to tell this story.”
The musical tells the real-life events of these young men and how being unjustly accused changed their lives.
“It’s kind of a criticism of the justice system in a way, in how justice doesn’t always equal the truth and honesty,” Walker says. “Our production also takes it a step further, not only talking about what’s happened in the past but bringing it to the future showing how a lot of the issues the Scottsboro Boys go through with the prison system still sometimes happen today in our country.”
One of the big controversies that has always followed the musical is the minstrel element in the show. Theatres have been picketed. Not understanding Kander & Ebb’s purpose in using a mocking minstrel show style, theatregoers stayed away out of protest. That’s something that Walker discussed a great deal with his theater professors at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.
“We talked about where minstrelsy came from and having a production that utilizes the actual device and talking about that and the controversy behind the show, and how people took it both on Broadway and during its run in London,” Walker says. “My ancestors partook in this story; I have a friend that used to tell me, ‘remember the stock that we come from.’ To know the sacrifices that my ancestors made to make opportunities for me and allow me to be on the stage to tell this story, I can’t help but do it justice and put my all into it.”
Walker was attracted to the show because of the incredible heart the book gives in having the boys tell their story.
“Just having an opportunity to tell a story that actually means something that was true; it’s a part of history – that really appealed to me,” he says. “We want people to also talk about those like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, and realize that things like back then are still happening today.”
“Virginia is one of the foundations of the South and yet it’s never played this far south in America before,” Walker says. “We are putting the soul into this show and making sure that people come away knowing the individual boys and not just the group of them together. We want them to understand the text and the message that is shown through.”
The cast also features Jonathan Adriel, Malik Akil, Christopher Bloch, Chaz Alexander Coffin, Felicia Curry, C.K. Edwards, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Andre Hinds, Darrell Wayne Purcell, Aramie Payton, Joseph Monroe Webb and Stephen Scott Wormley.
Walker grew up in Virginia Beach, graduated from his Pittsburgh-based college last May and now lives in New York City. He answered a casting call for the musical in his new city—only the second thing he auditioned for—and snagged the role.
“I love storytelling and for me, being able to tell a story and have people affected by what I’m doing on stage, is what this experience is about for me,” Walker says. “I want people to think. It’s not always about the flashing lights and the theatrics; it’s really just about the heart.”
Once The Scottsboro Boys ends its run, he plans on heading back to New York City and continue paving his way in theater.
“When I first got to New York, it was a hard winter and it never stopped, but I am looking forward to going back and experiencing that energy of the city,” Walker says. “Once you do a show like this, it takes a while to get your character out of your system so hopefully I will just be able to enjoy being back in the city again.”
Walker hopes those who come to see The Scottsboro Boys will walk away with is the power of truth, honesty and awareness.
“I hope people will open up their eyes to the world around us today,” he says. “The political climate is its own beast. To be able to hear a story like this and walk through the world we live in today, you can’t help but be aware of that.”