Signature Theatre and its own “Scottsboro boys” have given us a musical for our times. Smart. Searing. Dangerous. Funny. Provocative. And – as it continues to expose and engage us in a conversation about race – it is immensely moving. And it’s all wrapped up in a Kander & Ebb musical entertainment. Giving double meaning to the term “black comedy” and like one of its more macabre songs about the electric chair, the musical delivers high-power voltage.
I saw the musical when it first opened on Broadway in 2010 and thought then, that while flawed, it was unfairly savaged by the press. Also overlooked by the typical Broadway audience seeking out safer fare, the production floundered and soon closed.
But given this last year in America, the reportage of continued violence by police on young Black men, the exposure of how the established order continues to promulgate racism in our society, and the great divide that has cracked open to show us a societal chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon, its time has come. Signature Theatre’s creative team and the talent assembled has only deepened the original work and given our community a powerful production that reflects our past and pointedly speaks to our present, throwing down a challenge to engage us in the transformative work that needs to take place.
The Scottsboro Boys is from the partnership of John Kander and Fred Ebb, completed by Kander after Ebb’s sudden demise. We recognize and tingle at the familiar um-pah and grind of the music. We know their territory from other works like Cabaret and Chicago. We recognize that the team has successfully taken on dark subjects like the holocaust and death row prisoners and served them up as high, sexy entertainment. Here they took on racism, cultural prejudice, and lynching in the Jim Crow South.
The story is based in historical fact. In 1931, nine African-American boys, all between the ages of twelve and nineteen, hopped a freight train that was on its way to Memphis. Some were looking for work, others for adventure. It was not only the Depression but the height of Jim Crow laws in the South. Although there were White hobos also on the train, when a posse broke up an altercation, the only ones apprehended were two White females and the nine Black kids. The women only had to whisper the word rape, and all nine boys were incarcerated and soon talk of lynching was sparked.
Kander & Ebb took the form from the tradition of a minstrel show. This has been more deeply infused by director Joe Calarco and collaborator Sybil R. Williams with the spirit of Africa. In this particular imagined “troupe,” a group of African-American singer-dancers high step, tap dance, show their teeth in exaggerated smiles, and deliver stereotyped humorous skits all to tell the Scottsboro story. The complex feelings that motivate such performances never are abandoned.
The Scottsboro Boys
closes July 1, 2018
Details and tickets
Two lead characters taken from the conventions of minstrelsy are Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo. Stephen Scott Wormley and Chaz Alexander Coffin are consummate performers. They double dress to quick change, dashing onto the stage – now to deliver slick “sick” vaudevillian humor, now to play the key white villains of sheriff and side kick from the Alabama town. They lay it on thick with gags like “Just-ice is Just-us.” Wormley and Coffin communicate several layers simultaneously: they are entertainers, delighted to show off their performing skills to an audience, while they broadly mimic racist White characters who maintain dominance through hatred and small mindedness, and show beneath the masks they are modern working Black actors seething with rage at being forced to deliver this story – again.
Felicia Curry is an actress of extraordinary range and talent and here she steps into the shoes of [The Lady] who from the moment she enters the stage breathes dignity iinto her most powerful and emblematic character. At times she appears to be Haywood’s mother, at other times perhaps she symbolizes all the mothers who lose their sons every day in this country. Forced to sit and witness the goings-on, we feel her pain and humiliation, but we also feel her pouring her support into these victims of injustice. In the middle of our ‘busting out laughing,’ she will stand and silence us with a look. We later come to learn she is also the quiet moral voice of a hero, the woman with a backbone of steel.
Christopher Bloch as the Interlocutor represents the face of Jim Crow’s white racism. He masks it in benign paternalism and southern boy sentimentality. His role is also primarily a caricature but one that works for the show. Even here, there is a dimension of “unmasking.” He is always isolated, loathed, and made insignificant. Somehow, it’s all rather sad. Bloch carries the burden of his unsavory character well.
As in the original, we get the whacky broad comedy by Malik Akil and DeWitt Fleming Jr. playing Black performers playing White southern women. It’s turn-the-tables artifice where Blacks get their chance to lay the stereotypes on thick. But Calarco has encouraged dramatic journeys. As Akil is pushed to repeat Victoria Price’s false accusation, you see her breaking under the burden, while Fleming breaks down as the other woman, Ruby, who wants to tells the truth and set the record straight but is not believed. These portrayals feel scorching.
Kander & Ebb dish out equal opportunity for crude stereotyping, dousing their work further with incendiary ugly humor. There’s the first Jewish lawyer who takes on the case. Based on the times and events that led to a coalition made up of Jews and communists, Samuel Liebowitz swoops down south to save the day and delivers the song “That’s Not the Way We Do Things Around Here.”
The show delivers a lot of gut punches. Every time one of the “white” characters put a gun to the head of a Black prisoner or knees one viciously in the groin the audience visibly winces. We could have been watching one of today’s ‘Breaking News’ segments on TV.
Jared Grimes’ choreography may not feel quite as spectacular as did in Jelly’s Last Jam, but he integrates the traditions and physical language of minstrelsy including cakewalks and tap dancing so that the show hangs together beautifully.
Lamont Walker II gives in his performance as Haywood a raw and angry resistance that feels the most contemporary of characters. But this show is an ensemble piece, and all these performers blend their voices and strut the style out together most powerfully. They help bring the nine Scottsboro boys back to life so we never forget their story.
The Scottsboro Boys. Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Book by David Thompson. Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman. Music Direction by Brian P. Whitted. Choreography by Jared Grimes. Directed by Joe Calarco. Scenic Design by Daniel Conway. Costume Deign by Emilio Sosa Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani. Sound Design by Ryan Hickey. With Jonathan Adriel, Malik Akil, Christopher Block, Chaz Alexander Coffin, Felicia Curry, C.K. Edwards, DeWitt Fleming, Jr., Andre Hinds, Aramie Payton, Darrel Purcell Jr., Lamont Walker II, Joseph Monroe Webb, and Stephen Scott Wormley. Produced by Signature Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith