Review: Scottsboro Boys

When, after the show, a friend described The Scottsboro Boys as “Just so Kander and Ebb,” I found myself first agreeing, and only after considering what exactly that meant. She was referring of course to John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist of The Scottsboro Boys, and who are famous for Cabaret and Chicago. I admit these are the only other musicals of theirs that I’m familiar with, so I can’t speak for their style as a whole, but the structural and stylistic parallels between these three shows are quite clear. All are framed stylistically as offshoots of vaudeville: something close to a traditional vaudeville for Chicago, the eponymous Cabaret, and for Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel show. These frames compliment and ironize, emphasize and undercut the stories they are telling, and most of all they use their roots in popular culture and infectious entertainment to pull the audience deep into complicity in the atrocities that all three musicals (in varying levels of directness) depict. 

Directed for Broadway, then the Young Vic, and finally the West End by Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys opens with a white man who identifies himself as The Interlocutor (Julian Glover). He is the MC, as it were, of the minstrel show where, assisted by Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon)–whose names probably make their identities plain– and nine other black actors, the story of the nine young men falsely accused of and imprisoned for rape in 1930s Alabama will be told through song and dance. It’s not a music/content marriage that was found universally happy by American critics. 

It certainly doesn’t make for an easy watching experience, either. There came a point fairly early in the play where clapping for the grotesquely cheery numbers began to feel just plain wrong… but at the same time, not clapping felt like an appalling breach of theatre etiquette and an insult to the fabulous performers. I settled on an awkward golf-clap after most numbers. You could practically feel the audience’s relief at numbers that hit a note of satire that felt appropriate to fully clap at– both, not coincidentally, numbers at the expense of well-meaning but desperately misguided white characters (all of whom, except for the judges and the governor of Alabama, were played by members of the black ensemble).  

The most powerful element of Scottsboro Boys is one that it is possibly the most awkward to explain, so let’s just go for it: it recognizes that, as a musical (and one which had its debut at the Vineyard and then moved to Broadway), its audience is almost certainly predominantly white. So often, when plays try to force a sense of ‘complicity’ on the audience, I find it frustrating and heavy-handed, unjust in its broad sweep. But in this case, the use of theatrical etiquette, and indeed the very fact that the audience was present watching the show– like, as I mentioned above, the need to clap– to force the audience into an awareness of the role of society broadly in the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys’ lives and deaths felt perfectly suited. Perhaps this was also because it did not feel accusatory: this is not a show that begs for you to offer tribute of your white, liberal guilt, but rather to witness and acknowledge the story it is telling. 

The history is loosely told, the compression of events and time facilitated by focusing in on the prisoners’ perspectives and glossing over some of the more complex legal maneuvering that was going on while they waited in jail. Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the central Scottsboro boy, his fierce resistance to accepting defeat shaping the major arc of the story. Dixon is wonderful, his voice stunning. The whole cast is wonderful, all true triple-threats, as is to be expected in a show created by director-choreographer Susan Stroman. 

The marriage of satire and pathos, minstrelsy and dark American history was not one that all reviews of the Broadway production found happy. I thought that the blend was almost perfectly pitched to elicit just the right amount of entertainment tempered with just the right amount of horror. The only serious misstep is the ghostly presence of a mostly-mute female character (Dawn Hope), who hovers at the edges of the action and whose identity, when its revealed in the final moments of the play, I found to be a disappointment. 

Mr. Tambo, Mr. Bones, and Haywood are all played by American actors; Domingo and McClendon have followed the show since Broadway, Dixon starred at the original Vineyard production. This seems to be a wise choice. I found myself wondering what the British actors made of performing the infamous blackface number– it feels important that Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo in particular be presented by actors with a more profound knowledge of the racist history they are embodying. I did wonder if others in the theatre had the same experience as I did, if the fascination and discomfort and willingness to embrace the blame that the play offers are not as accessible to a British audience. I’m fascinated by whoever had the idea to bring it to London in the first place. But I’m happy that someone did. Everything else aside, it’s too rare to see a new musical that feels created by masters of the form. 

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