Gentlemen, be seated!

The last time I attended the final matinee of a show was back in January 2009, when Spring Awakening closed, but attending the second-to-last performance of The Scottsboro Boys, a show that I knew nothing beforehand, was quite a different experience. In the midst of a slew of mid-winter closing notices, I managed to steal away from the cheer of finals week and melting my brain over accounting and theories of mass communication (note: sarcasm) to catch a show that I'd only heard excellent things about before it closed prematurely.

It had been raining all day, so I got to the Lyceum in time to enter the theater at half-hour, and while I wouldn't call the scene outside chaotic, it was kind of unsettling. A group of protesters, all representing the "Freedom Party," lined the sidewalk, handing out fliers and yelling, "Scottsboro Boys ain't no minstrel show! Scottsboro Boys has got to go!" (Which, if you think about it, was kind of a moot point on the day the show was closing...) There was a cop or two watching the scene as ushers directed ticket-holding patrons inside. I've never really experienced anything like that, and it definitely made me consciously consider during the show whether the material and its presentation seemed offensive or not.

First, for some background. The show tells the true story of nine African American boys, all under the age of 20, who hopped a freight train in the spring of 1931, traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis with the intent of finding work. When two white women falsely accused them of rape, the unjust treatment of the Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known, brought America's emerging civil rights movement into the spotlight.

The musical, one of the last collaborations between John Kander (who was in the audience at the same show I saw - WHAT?!) and the now-deceased Fred Ebb, uses the style of the minstrel show, a popular form of entertainment at the time, as the framework to tell the boys' story. (The minstrel tradition in the United States "began in the 1830s, with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms.") I can honestly see how the show would be viewed as offensive by some, but at the same time, I think people who hold that opinion either haven't seen the show at all, didn't stay for the end of the show, or truly don't understand the juxtaposition that Kander and Ebb used so effectively to critique the treatment of the Scottsboro Boys. When the boys are singing and tap-dancing to a song about their potential fate with the electric chair, for example, or about how most of the boys led troubled lives after finally regaining their freedom (because what could a black man with a criminal record do in the 1940s?) - the contrast is just so stark and so humbling. I was particularly moved by a scene at the very end in which the nine boys sing and dance a rousing final number, dressed in blackface. The Interlocutor, the "ringmaster" of the minstrel show (played by the only white actor in the show, John Cullum) repeatedly instructs the boys to sit down, in the minstrel tradition that the title of this blog takes its name from, only to be ignored for the first time in the show while each of the boys slowly walks to the front of the stage, disgustedly wiping off their makeup. And in a troubling twist, the audience learns at the end of the 90-minute show that, although four of the boys were released initially as a plea bargain, they were put into the vaudeville circuit by their New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, in a (failed and humiliating) attempt to keep the five boys who remained in jail in the mind of the public.

The aforementioned fact that John Cullum was the only white member of the cast is another interesting and controversial aspect of the show. As the Interlocutor, Cullum did interact with the rest of the characters, but mostly served as a narrator. The rest of the white characters - Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the two white Alabama women who accused the boys of rape; the sheriff, lawyers, judge, and governor of Alabama - were all played in a very exaggerated fashion by black actors. But again, in my mind, setting up the show in this way only served to enhance the ridiculous nature of the story's proceedings - nine honest teenagers, who happen to be black, are telling the truth, and nothing they can possibly say will get anyone to believe their innocence. Colman Domingo as a collection of these characters really stood out as a presence on the Lyceum stage, although each seemed to run in the same vein as Mister Franklin, his character in Passing Strange. Jeremy Gumbs, who played Eugene Williams, the youngest of the Boys at only 13, was wonderful as well with his earnest, innocent nature (shown early on in the boys' arrest with the line, "Is that what rape means?") and his incredible dancing during the "Electric Chair" number. There really was not a weak link in the entire ensemble, and it was obvious that every single member of the cast was soaking up the last few moments of a show they loved dearly. The audience also showed their appreciation with thunderous applause after nearly every number.

The hype about Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, one of the boys who take the lead in defending the group's innocence, was certainly justified with his breathtaking performance. Mr. Henry made the correct decision to leave American Idiot to take on this role, however short-lived the show's run, because it gave him the chance to show off acting chops that I'd never have guessed he possessed. The monologue in which he reveals the reason he adamantly refuses to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit (*SPOILER - as a boy, he witnessed his own mother being raped by a white man*) brought me and many of the patrons seated around me to tears. And he sang and danced the role with ease; it's truly a travesty that his rendition of the gorgeous "Go Back Home," a clip of which can be seen here, won't be recorded on a Broadway cast recording. (An off-Broadway recording made during the show's run at the Vineyard Theatre, when the role of Patterson was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, is definitely still worth a listen.)

Because many of our readers may not have had the opportunity to catch one of The Scottsboro Boys' mere 49 performances on Broadway, I'd like to reveal the show's concluding scene, and perhaps its most breathtaking moment. The single woman in the cast, Sharon Washington, plays an ambiguous character credited as "The Lady"; she seems to be ever-present during the show, and at one point represents Haywood's mother, sending a care package of sorts to her son in prison in case they never see each other again. But in the show's final scene, The Lady is confronted by an anonymous white man as she sits on a chair in the center of the stage:
"Lady, you can't sit there - move to the back of the bus. Coloreds in the back of the bus!"

"No. Not no more. I'm going to sit here and rest my feet."
As the lighting faded to a blackout, the audience's collective revelation that a young Rosa Parks grew up in the midst of the Scottsboro Boys trial, and was in fact motivated to refuse to move to the back of the bus, just as Haywood Patterson refused to admit to a crime he didn't commit, left the theater completely breathless.

The show's producers have begun a campaign on their website to gauge audience interest in bringing The Scottsboro Boys back to Broadway in the spring, enabling it to be fresh in the minds of Tony committee voters for the 2011 Awards, and I would highly encourage our readers to show support for one of the most innovative and challenging shows on Broadway in years. While the subject matter of the show certainly has no commercialized, Disney-ified happy ending, I have only the highest recommendation for The Scottsboro Boys. Nearly two weeks later, I can say with certainty that the themes presented and critiqued in the show have been on my mind and will be for some time as I continue to wrestle with the mistreatment of the Scottsboro Boys, the relentless moral compass of Haywood Patterson, and the controversy surrounding the presentation of these historical events. The Scottsboro Boys is unarguably an excellent piece of art because it made me THINK. In the end, isn't that the purpose of good theater?


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