CUNY Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College/Professor Bernstein
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Category — Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys: You Can’t Do Me.

A dim orange light directly projected the hidden heroes of the Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys in the dark Lyceum Theatre. Several metallic chairs were bunched up on the empty stage as if they were implying the musical’s complicated dilemma of maintaining balance between depicting the gravity of a historical event and presenting entertainment to the audience. The illumination of the legs got dimmer as the light gradually faded away. Soon the entire stage was filled with all the miscellaneous noises of the city. When the light was finally restored, the audience was introduced to a crucial, but mysterious heroine of the musical. One African American lady in an ivory dress and heavy trench coat sat on one of the chairs. With this anonymous woman’s blank gaze at the audience, the Scottsboro boys finally drew their heavy curtains.

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical based on a historical incident that was taken place in 1931. Nine African American teenagers, who were traveling the northeast part of Alabama, were wrongly accused of raping two white women. Just like most of the audience there, I initially misread the synopsis and presumed that this musical’s potential was locked in the heavy atmosphere of depicting racism and clashes between different social classes in the 1930s. As the storyline progressed, however, I found that my initial assumption was wrong. The musical’s potential was not limited. The musical did stop at simply narrating the historical context on behalf of the innocent victims of the social prejudices. Similar to what the Scottsboro boys sang their song “Shout,” this musical was an astonishing debut of all the muted, forgotten, and ignored neighbors of our society.

The musical was able to project the voice clearly by minimizing the number of stage devices and allowed the audience to focus on the characters and the storyline from other visual factors. By doing so, it was able to make the audience to perceive the metaphorical meaning of the scenes better. The several metallic chairs and three giant frames were the only stage devices that were used in the musical. The scene after another, the chairs were bunched up and became a train, a prison cell, and often simply served their original role, chairs. The cell created by chair legs implied unfair treatment of the society toward the innocent boys behind the iron bars. Meanwhile, the huge frames on the back of the stage indicated the society’s paradox for its careless judgment of individuals according to its own biased standard. Also, it served as a metaphor for our cognitive rulers that we use everyday to measure others’ worth.

Even though the songs were encoded in lively beats and sung by performers with energetic choreography, the musical successfully maintained its sharp satire on the social prejudices against the African Americans. The best moment of this performance came at last when all the boys sang “The Scottsboro Boys” together in unison. Their faces were entirely colored in black except for their mouths. Everyone, whether they were freed from the wrong accusation or got executed, came together in one voice. In the middle of the song, the freed boys came up to the front and explained what happened to their lives afterward. Even though they could run away from the instant accusation of a false crime, most of them could not successfully merged back into the society.  In this scene, I was able to redefine my own definition of freedom: the society itself was the actual life-long imprisonment for the boys.

The Scottsboro Boys examined the significance of spirit of civil disobedience in our society. History is written in favor of who play by the rules. In that perspective, Haywood was the loser: he was the only person who refused to admit his false charge and chose death rather than pleading for life. However, the real irony in the musical is that the concept of power was interpreted differently. This time, or at least this musical was in favor of the losers and strived to retrieve their lost voices. Haywood himself became a resonating evidence of injustice by refusing to obey a false order.

Besides portraying the serious consequences of racism in the 30s, the musical also depicted discrimination against other social groups. The lady who first appeared on the stage did not speak any word throughout the musical. She either sat or stood in the corner of the stage as if she did not belong to anywhere. No one noticed her presence. When she knelt down to check if Haywood was okay after being forcefully pushed away by the prosecutor, Haywood waved her off. In the last scene, she sat on a chair in the dark all by herself again. A white driver demanded her to give up her sit.  “No,” she spoke for the first time, “No, I don’t want to move.” Setting up the “speechless woman” as Rosa Park was slightly too dramatic and easily predictable to some extent. Nonetheless, this predictable ending was powerful enough to recap and collect all the ambivalent emotions toward the incident.

Through the upbeat flow of rich jazz melody in “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” and Haywood’s deep voice in his solo “You Can’t Do Me,” the Scottsboro Boys presented a full package of different performance arts. Each character’s voice was unique, yet blended perfectly into unison.  After the curtain fell back again, I found myself remaining in my seat asking myself different questions. What freedom really means to me? Am I free in my world? What is justice? I couldn’t answer any of the questions out of my head. However, I suddenly realized how heavy the weight of freedom is that I carry all the time.

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December 11, 2010   No Comments

The Show Goes On

The Scottsboro Boys presents a horrifying account of racial struggle through a combination of comical entertainment and troubling revelation. The play follows one of the most racist forms of theatre, the minstrel show, and begins the story, in past tense, of apparent injustice and racism found a long time ago in the South. Most of the actors on stage were African-American, purposefully chosen to play an important role in this historical tragedy. The constant shifting of ethnic and gender roles by these African-American actors generate a different outlook, and point to the fact that the production represents the boys’ perspective throughout the events leading to their ultimate tragedy.

The musical begins by providing the audience with circus spectacles, immediately referring to the minstrelsy of the entire operation. The only Caucasian actor is the conductor of the show who often acts as a medium between past and present. This “Southern Gentlemen” consistently interrupts the overall emotional connection to the story, and often reveals just how far removed the audience is with the injustice that the story depicts. Aside from the provocative dance routines and humorous but cliché catchphrases, the boys continue to narrative a story that is serious, although there are joyous moments filled with laughter and uplifting chords. The “Electric Chair” displays the terrified boy prancing and dancing and eventually dragged around the chair, where the tempo is steadily increasing and the mood is ever changing. There are several instances where fear and joy are displayed, especially the White guards, played by African American actors, strutting around demonstrating their power over the helpless inmates who are destined to be guilty in the Southern courts of law.

The audience is often reminded that the emotions of fear and excitement are constantly pushed to its extremes, revealing that the trials and tribulations these boys experienced are more than a story, that the events the boys powerlessly witnessed actually happened in the South not very long ago. This spectacular musical portrays the unjustified and racist events of the past, a revelation that the audience continues to undergo until the very end. This idea of a show-within-a-show is further exemplified by the use of blackface makeup used by the African American members of the minstrel group. Now, this appalling sort of representation presents the constant oppression even the actors could not escape.

The greatest surprise of the show was the ingenious use of chairs to form the set. During each scene, the chairs are assembled in a different balance, which allows the audience to understand the shift in any one particular scene or moment. The actor’s use of imagination brings life onto stage, and truly adds credibility not only to the scene at hand, but also to the entire show.

To The Scottsboro Boys, bravo, bravo!

December 9, 2010   No Comments

Scottsboro Boys

Innocent men await their deaths in jail, tortured by their traditional white Southern guard, with absolutely no escape. In the meantime, let’s do the cakewalk! Scottsboro Boys was a musical unlike any I had ever seen. First of all, it was the first I have seen that could be placed in the historical genre and showed factual events of America after the Civil War. Of course, because it is a play and therefore must be entertaining, details were warped and embellished, however the main idea of the play was rooted in harsh reality.

Eight black men and one black boy who are simply trying to change their lives and escape to better things are all illegally riding a cargo train. Two young white women are riding this train as well, and, when the police find them, they decide that if they pretend these men raped them, the officer will completely forget about the fact that they should not have been on the train in the first place.

This lie, which seemed small and insignificant to the racist white women, got these nine men thrown into jail and ultimately destroyed their lives. How could these be turned into entertainment, one might ask. Through the addition of catchy songs and dances, with great caricatures of all the typical figures found in Southern tales such as these, such as the white minister who attempts to present himself as pure and holy yet is still just as racist as the other Southern white men. The caricatures were honestly the greatest I have ever seen. Never did I imagine that I would see an African American man playing a white Jewish lawyer so convincingly. I found myself often forgetting that there was only one Caucasian male in the show, who acted as the emcee and interrupted the story to bring humor into it when it seemed to becoming too realistic and therefore too dark.

Because of these inserts, one almost forgets that the play they are watching is ultimately a tragedy revealing the horrific effects of racism on the lives of nine innocent men. By inserting song and dance into the story, the true implications of the tale hit hard when, at the end of the play, the fates of all nine men are announced. During this scene, aside from a solitary monotone voice, there is absolute silence. When this occurs, the humor and entertainment from the musical vanishes completely, and I left the theater with a sad sense of realization about the horrific events found in American history.

December 9, 2010   No Comments

Be Seated!

Jim Crow representation

In 1932, Rosa Parks married Raymond Parks and the two join the campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys; in 1955, she was arrested for refusing to move on the bus.  Her peaceful resistance on that night is widely taught, but the Scottsboro Boys are hardly as much of a household name.  In a rather bright, humorous (though darkly humorous) manner, “The Scottsboro Boys” tells an important and regrettable case in history.  Told in the minstrel tradition, “Scottsboro” is at once funny, offensive, and a reminder of the past.  A colorful set, vivid costuming, a simple but intricate set, an incredibly engaging, talented cast, the political undertones, and to some extent the offensiveness of the play made “Scottsboro” captivating and entertaining yet with a bit of bite.

The presentation of the story of a rape case between a white woman’s claim, black defendants, and a white jury in the South is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the mocking minstrelsy, vivid color, and bright lighting kept the play feeling modern.  The simple set with interlocking chairs representing the prison, the train, and various other sets was genius.  I especially liked the train scene where the tambourines were used as the wheels of the train, and the actors made it look like the train was moving.  So many people moving on such a makeshift structure made it so surprising that is was so sturdy when actors jumped on top of it.

The song in that scene was so catchy; “commencing in Chattanooga…” is still playing in my head.  Yet the bubbly tunes come in sharp contrast to the subject matter.  Cheery music including tambourines, memorable beats, and the occasional beat from tap dancing provided an irresistible upbeat feeling.  The contrast was most distinct during the electric chair scene; although the chair signifies imminent death, the movement and staging seemed to suggest nothing of the sort.

The most memorable performance came from Joshua Henry who portrayed Haywood Patterson who in the play was put into solitary confinement and died in prison.  He provided strength and dynamism in his dance movement, acting, voice, and simple presence.  Other memorable performances include the youngest in the cast, Julius Thomas III, who portrayed Roy Wright, Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon who portrayed the offensively funny and changing roles of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.

It is a shame that the show is closing on December 12 at a 5 million dollar loss, though the producers contend it is due to the economy more than the protests.  “The Scottsboro Boys” keeps present episodes in our history that we might like to forget, but question society today.  Although spoken by the interlocutor (played by John Cullum), his message resonates: “Gentlemen, be seated.”

December 6, 2010   No Comments

Scottsboro Boys

As the curtains closed, I sat awestruck with my mouth agape. This happens a lot at Broadway plays for me, but at Scottsboro Boys it was for a different reason. In this new age of Broadway shows ripped straight off from movies or television (Elf, Legally Blonde, Shrek, Spiderman) ‘Scottsboro’ holds something special in its story.

It was the first historically controversial Broadway play I have ever seen, and it gave justice to the plight of the nine young men in post-WWII Alabama. The story follows nine African-American males and their fight against an erroneous claim of raping two southern white belles. Unfortunately, these poor boys are fighting against the law and society – while also fighting against their surroundings. The play is in the form of a minstrel show, a cruel reminder of the way African Americans were treated in entertainment. The boys are stuck in the distorted, almost scary and completely irrelevant world of minstrel tradition. The irrationality of all those around them is heightened by the rough insincerity of minstrel acting.

The minstrel acting, although coarse and diverse (as it should be), was phenomenal. The actors played an array of characters, from racist deputies, corrupt lawyers to blubbering, air-headed southern women. Each character was distinguishable, real, and completely different from the next. This is not to take away from the other actors – the nine Scottsboro Boys.

All nine young men showed brilliant talent and hard work, but one character in particular was extremely well-crafted. Brandon Victor Dixen, the man behind Haywood Patterson performed excellently in his role. His voice was capable of a perfect blend of deep, soulful southern comfort and the pain and exhaustion of fighting an impossible battle. His torture seemed to be the solid foundation for the surrounding chaos.

This chaos was not due to the set design – it was minimal, but innovative. The set design comprised of a set of chairs, about ten or so; they made for quick and clean transitions, while leaving the audience in awe of the complicated combinations in which they were positioned. The transitions were extremely fluent and enjoyable to watch.

As was the dancing! The songs were contagious, while some were tear-jerkers. At times, their placement seemed irrelevant to the theme of the play, taking away from the true plot. The choice of minstrelsy as a background to the play was essential to the play’s sarcasm, but at times it felt like the minstrelsy was being forced into conforming to Broadway standards. Certain songs were to be sung at certain times, to evoke certain feelings, which works for most Broadway plays. However, Scottsboro’s sinister story seemed somewhat masked by the forcefulness of the placement of songs. The songs where unnecessary at times, but were well performed and very clever.

Overall, the production of ‘Scottsboro Boys’ was well cast and well executed. It had the daunting task of putting an extremely controversial historical scene onto the bright lights of Broadway, and I believe it succeeded as much as it could. It brings a refreshing new taste to the stale choices of today’s Broadway plays, but is easily misunderstood. It was sarcastic and funny, while still tugging on the heartstrings. The boys’ story was told in an unorthodox manner, but in a way that points a cold, glaring finger at the audience and the audience of the early 1900s – of those watching this all take place, in real time, and paying no mind. Complete with black face, southern hospitality and ignorance – ‘Scottsboro’ was a beautifully bittersweet take on a tough subject.

December 1, 2010   No Comments

The Scottsboro Boys

The Broadway production of The Scottsboro Boys combines piercing social commentary with all the style and pizzazz of an old-fashioned musical. Instead of relying on a straightforward, and what was surely to be a heavy handed narrative of the real life Scottsboro boys, this musical interrupts its more serious subject matter with comedic elements and upbeat musical numbers. Scottsboro takes comedic relief to new heights, but at times it feels like its own unique style overwhelms the very substance of the story. The cast is almost entirely made up of African American men, some who play white and female roles. This is where the play takes the opportunity to turn the minstrel tradition on its head. The opportunity to see a play about thirteen black men unjustly convicted of raping two white women, while at the same time being treated to the visual shock of men dressed in drag and cotton candy musical numbers is a once in a lifetime experience, even if its parts do not satisfy as whole.

The plot of the musical follows nine African Americans who are unjustly accused of raping two white women. The story is a sad and true one and even though The Scottsboro Boys is full of comedic moments the dramatic roles are overwhelmed. Scottsboro Boys turns the minstrel tradition on its head in order to show how irrational things were back when racism and the Jim Crow plagued the southern United States. The prisoners are the only ones played without exaggeration. This makes these nine young men, who are the ones locked in prison, the only rational characters in the entire play. Aptly played by the entire ensemble, these dramatic roles shine through with importance and sincerity, allowing the audience to see how hopeless their situation actually was.

Even though the dramatic parts can stand on their own, it is really the musical numbers and minstrel tradition, which make the Scottsboro Boys, for whatever reasons, such an intriguing and controversial production. The musical numbers scattered throughout the play are a mix of cynicism and irony. The music, dance, and lighting evoke the joy and wonder found in old-fashioned musicals, but the subject matter would suggest the contrary. A particularly disturbing dream sequence has the youngest prisoner, only twelve years old, dancing around electric chairs and facing electrocution.  Sometimes these types of scenes can distract too much from the story, and on a couple of occasions they even turned me off from a moral standpoint.

That raises the question, which has been raised countless times about this play, whether or not The Scottsboro Boys is all in good taste, or if it indeed goes too far? I am hardly qualified to answer that question and would suggest that if you have not seen it that you should not form an opinion until you see it. But, Scottsboro Boys does tread a fine line between telling the audience what really happened to those nine souls and turning their story into comedic fodder, even if the comedy is geared towards the boy’s captors and not the boys themselves.

On a technical level The Scottsboro Boys is near perfect. The lighting, music, and sounds are all used to convey the mood of each scene in a way that clearly shows a lot of time had been put into getting the details perfect. The dancing and stage direction is also phenomenal, with a few memorable dance sequences. The use of stackable, metal chairs, as part of the set throughout the entire play is ingenious and sets a swift pace for a production, which has no intermission. The plain and boring costumes of the nine prisoners juxtapose well with the exaggerated costumes worn by the guards, sheriff, and other characters with comedic roles.

Overall it is hard to say whether or not The Scottsboro Boys is a great musical, but it is worth seeing and is definitely very good. There are a few problems and controversies, but that should not spoil what is otherwise a powerful, memorable and well-performed production.

November 30, 2010   No Comments

The Scottsboro Boys Review

The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway is an artistic and at times ironically whimsical retelling of a well-known injustice. Through its unique brand of retelling, Broadway can amplify the emotions behind any historical headline. This is where Scottsboro falls slightly short. The attempt to emphasize the incredulity of the charges brought against the nine young black men was often overshadowed by what could be described as an excessive maintenance of Broadway lightheartedness.

Not all musicals have to be happy. In order to achieve critical acclaim and audience hearts a musical must awe. The “immortal” musicals throughout the last century varied from lighthearted children’s tales to bloody horror stories, each managing to earn Broadway timelessness. Scottsboro possesses qualities that put it on a path towards renown, but in the end something is missing.

One of the most interesting creative decisions was the usage of a ninety-nine percent black cast to portray not just black, but also white characters. The audience enjoyed the mocking representations of the young white “victims” and the law enforcement officers. This parody of the characters’ personas was appropriate; one might go so far as to say metaphorical. The Scottsboro trials were charade-like so including parody in the story was a well though out mixture of plot and satire.

The demographics of the audience were another interesting factor of Wednesday night’s performance. Viewers were predominately white, which is curious, considering the story is one that marked the beginnings of affirmative action and black empowerment. In contrast, attendance of the premier season of Margaret Garner, an extremely serious slave story, at the Metropolitan Opera seemed significantly more mixed. Perhaps Scottsboro’s unconventional presentation of the black struggle in America was less appealing to the black community because of the unorthodox and extreme presence of humor. Granted, the humor was mostly ironic and satirical but it can still feel belittling.

The score of the musical was all over the place. A number of songs were beautiful, and the majority of the voices were divine but quite a few numbers seemed less striking and frankly lacked lyrical depth. The songs allowed the young actors to display their immense vocal talents but again, detracted from the genuineness of the story.

The Scottsboro Boys wasn’t however, unsuccessful. Upon concluding the viewing experience the audience is not left feeling jolly. Instead a communal feeling of disgust seemed to set itself upon the spectators. The minstrel show element is disturbing, which is the emotion that should arise following any story based off of the Scottsboro trials. Although some major elements of the production ranging from tone to song lyrics could use development, the musical itself thankfully strode away from the amusing temperament of the majority of the show and more towards a realistic, melancholy one. The audience is drawn back into reality towards the conclusion of the performance. Without this occurrence the musical would have been thoroughly unsuccessful but the manner with which it was executed is cause for thought over the intentionality of the storyline. Perhaps the message here is the danger of performance, of the retelling of stories. The audience on Friday night quickly seemed to forget that this was a true and terrible story of a serious injustice. As we are pulled back from false merriment to dank reality at the end, one notes how easy it is to forget that which we ought be embarrassed of.

November 30, 2010   No Comments

The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys balances historical tragedy and contemporary cynicism to achieve a humorous yet sorrowful dynamic.  In a narrative where all characters are played with black male actors, the shuffling of ethnic and gender roles generate a critical outlook on the trail of the Scottsboro Boys, a pivotal moment in history that propelled the civil rights movement. From the start of the play we are told that this production is arguably detailed from the perspective of the boys themselves.

The Broadway musical begins as are recollection of events bearing striking resemblances to circus spectacles that lend credit to the minstrelsy. The conductor is the only Caucasian actor in the plot, and his interaction with the other characters, both in the minstrel and the narrative of the story, serves as a thermometer of race relations throughout the performance. We first see a subjugate nature in their relationship, and later see it dissolved in the rubbing away of blackface paint, or proud tears of struggle. Viewers should be mindful of response the Scottsboro Boys offer to his roles.

The musical relies on the choreography of chair utilization, which are not simply used to prop up the victim of the electric chair or flaunt characters in eclectic dance, but also serve as the skeleton of the scenery.  While this approach is clearly frugal, it was appropriate, as the habitual glamour of Broadway may have drained the story of its harsh essence. The lighting was successful in setting the mood: deep warm reds offering moments of passion and cold tones of blue defining bitterness and struggle. Furthermore, warm oranges juxtapose the climatic warmth of the setting to the unsettling passion of the boys.

There is a vibrant synergy between the lighting and the faces of the performers. It radiates like wavelengths and celebrates the phenomenon of Broadway’s energetic world. Aside from the choreography, the unnoticeable nature of the direction attests to the organic flow of the acting. While some critics pointed out that the transition between joy and disaster are weak, they convinced me that I am still watching a musical. The pseudo-manic gestures authenticate the cynicism in the performance. While it was a source of controversy, with figures such as Reverend Al Sharpton raised pickets, actor Joshua Henry who played Haywood Patterson delivered a tear yielding finale that questioned the conservative diction of the picketers. Given the polarizing nature of the musical, reception will vary among the politically sensitive. However, one has little reason to be critical from an artistic standpoint.

The performance has much to offer to the liberal viewer; conservatives beware. In the artistic sense The Scottsboro Boys has a lot to offer, but historians may find the emotional undertones throughout the musical inappropriate and displaced.

November 30, 2010   No Comments

Heartfelt Humor

From the moment the actors stepped on stage, you could just tell that this was going to be a very upbeat, fast paced show. With the quirky music and excitement of the actors, it made you feel like they were about to put on a show about something they loved and couldn’t wait to show us. They made it seem like what they were performing was something good in history when it really wasn’t. The historical context behind “The Scottsboro Boys” is still evident throughout the musical though, but the way that it is presented to us works in a way that I feel is effective in that it never gets too serious or emotional for us to bear. They keep the context of the story easy going and add humor to the situation so that we are able to understand the significance behind it, but also strike a balance with humor to keep us entertained. I think it was very risky to do what John Kander and Fred Ebb did by making this story such a humorous, up tempo musical, being that many people might not take so lightly to such a serious topic. But personally, I appreciated the humor behind it because I think it makes everything easier for us to watch as viewers, and I also think humor is the the one thing in life that keeps us sane in life.

Obviously the story of the Scottsboro boys is not a laughing matter, but I think adding humor to the show and making it upbeat helps us to both view the historical meaning and also helps us be able to move past it. I don’t think anyone who actually see’s this show will walk out of the Lyceum Theatre and say, “Wow, segregation was funny back then.” The story is still powerful. You can still see the pain, emotion, and struggles the nine boys went through with that long ordeal. But when presented in a way where you can laugh every now and then, it eases the tension in watching it. There was one comment in the show that I thought to be especially funny. When thinking that they were getting released from prison and talking about what they were going to do once they got out, one of the boys responded by saying that he was going to buy two white girls to spend the night with to see what all this fuss was about. I don’t view that humor as taking anything away from the pain that they went through. I also don’t see that as “making fun” of the historical context. I see that as bringing humor to a serious topic which is something that we need sometimes. Sometimes we need to realize that this is a musical and not an actual re-enactment. If it were, it wouldn’t be so popular and bearable to watch. I think we need that humor to brighten a very dark situation.

One of my favorite aspects of the show itself was the use of characters. I loved how the white police officers and white girls were played by black, male actors. So much of the shows humor came from the scenes where these “white” people were shown. The over-exaggerated walking and talking was great satire in my opinion and kept me laughing with everything they did. It was a great way to poke fun at how ignorant they were. I think if the white people in the show were played by white people, it would cause more tension with everything and the whole show would be less humorous. Perhaps it would be too real and that would take away from the aim and purpose of the musical itself.

Another aspect of the show I thought was really well done was the use of chairs to put together different scenery. Just a few chairs were used for numerous settings. Different arrangements set the scene of a railroad car, a prison, a court room, a bus and probably a few other scenes that I can’t quite remember off hand. Simple props made the show what it was and it shows how effective something can be by just keeping things simple. One of my favorite scenes was the one where the boys are handcuffed on the bus and one of them attacks the driver and gets shot by the other officer. The use of lighting, music, and acting made this scene really dramatic. The stage lighting went red, the music got slower, and the actors started moving in slow motion. I thought that was a well done scene that used many different aspects of theater into making an effective show.

In conclusion, I’d like to finish off with how I started. There will probably always be people who take offense to a musical like this where humor and passion are used to tell a serious story. But in my opinion, that humor and passion is exactly what we need as viewers to understand the historical context and learn from it. I think that making a serious show that did a closer re-enactment to the history with more racism and prejudice wouldn’t serve us anything. We would just see it and be shocked. I think that would cause animosity and tension and that is not something we need. We need to be able to learn from the past and move forward…and I think humor was the right way to go in this case.

November 30, 2010   No Comments

Justice Needs to be Served

“These innocent boys are guilty,” the judge says leaving the Scottsboro Boys and viewers alike aghast.  This is one line from The Scottsboro Boys that still resonates in my mind, even though it has been days since I saw the musical.  This quote captures a truly perverse moment from America’s past, which the show, The Scottsboro Boys so effectively portrays.

The Scottsboro Boys uses the minstrel show art form, and although it is a racist form, it serves very efficiently as a source of comedic alleviation for what is a dark tale of injustice.  Some might feel hesitant to go and watch this performance if they hear that it takes on the form of a minstrel show; however, potential viewers shouldn’t let this affect their decision to watch this great show.  This is because at the end of the show, when the Scottsboro Boys remove their blackface, and disregard what the interlocutor is telling them to do, they show a much needed sign of rebellion against this form, and the stereotypical limitations forced upon them by it.

Overall, the acting in the musical was engaging and unique.  Joshua Henry’s portrayal of Haywood Patterson was one of the most compelling performances I have ever seen.  In the playbill, Haywood Patterson is quoted saying, “I don’t tell people stories.  I tell the truth.”  Joshua Henry acts in accordance with this quote, accurately exhibiting Mr. Patterson’s character.  His serious demeanor preserves the significance and gravity of this historical moment, even through the comical scenes that try to alleviate some of the gravity of the story.  All of the actors, especially Colman Domingo and Forrest Mcclendon, show their versatility as they tackle quite a few different roles in the show.   Although this made some scenes confusing, overall it was a humorous addition.  Also, the woman lurking in the background, who we later discover is Rosa Parks, does a great job of blending inconspicuously into the scenes.  In addition, just the fact that Rosa Parks was inspired by the incident that occurred with these young men shows both its prominence and influence.

As for the sets, although they were limited, the manner in which they were utilized was very effective. When I took my seat, and looked at the stage I saw a cluster of chairs; if someone were to tell me that all of the sets in the show would comprise of just these chairs, along with a few pieces of wood, I wouldn’t have believed them.  However as the show unfolded, these chairs began to transform magically into different things such as a train, a jail cell and more. At times I truly felt as if these chairs were actually what the actors were trying to show them to be.  Lighting helped establish the moods for every scene, and made the sets even more realistic.  Perhaps the most eye-catching scene from the show was the electric chair scene, in which lighting played a major role.  It used electricity and flashing lights to keep the attention of viewers glued to the stage.  The sets and lighting helped give life to the settings exhibited in the musical.

The music and the dancing served as the backbone for the musical. Hidden almost completely under the stage, the orchestra set the tone for every scene. For the darker or more nerve-racking scenes, such as those that showed the judge’s decisions, bass was prominent, and the bass drum was used to keep it strong.  However, for the most part, melodic instruments such as the trumpet are put in the forefront.  The dancing, especially for the melodic scenes ranged from being completely wacky to completely synchronized.  I found this very interesting, because I saw the synchronization as a representation of the constraints of the minstrel show form, and the wackiness as a representation of the freedom and justice sought by the boys.  What I found as an entertaining feature was that the actors didn’t merely serve as actors and dancers; they also participated in creating the music, whether it was with the tambourines or by stomping their feet.

The Scottsboro Boys is an experience unlike any other.  It is an exhilarating and creative combination of acting, music, and even comedy, which exhibits the story of a group of innocent young men who deal with America’s tainted justice system of the past.  The Scottsboro Boys is definitely a must see show for all types of viewers.

November 29, 2010   No Comments