TheaterMark Rudio

The Scottsboro Boys- a musical bamboozle

TheaterMark Rudio
As Susan Stroman and John Kander related it in a public conversation moderated by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff before the run of The Scottsboro Boys began, Stroman, Kander and Fred Ebb were sitting around a kitchen table discussing which court trial they could use as the basis for what would end up being Kander and Ebb's final collaboration. When the trials of the Scottsboro Boys were mentioned, the principals involved knew right away that was the one they would go with, and the results are now onstage at ACT's Geary Theater. I can understand the appeal- a tragic story of injustice, a distinctly American form of racial injustice, which all these years later sadly still has relevance. It probably did seem like a good idea, even though supposedly there were nine others famous trials under consideration (none of which were revealed during the conversation).
I wish they would have gone with OJ's instead.
There are two major flaws with the Scottsboro Boys. The first should be apparent to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with an earlier work by Kander and Ebb, also based on a sensational trial, called Chicago, from which large chunks of the music and dramatic structure of Scottsboro seems to have been lifted. I guess if one is going to steal, it's best to do it from your own work, but still, I found it distracting at first and eventually annoying by the time the character Haywood sings "You Can't Do Me," which has an almost identical intro and setting as Roxie's big number "Nowadays" in Chicago. The second, and there really is no delicate way to put this, is that this was the wrong material for this particular creative team- a group of older, successful, white people who have spent their lives in the theater world.

Yes, I know, here's a huge can of worms. I am now holding a fork in my hand. Let's take a bite, shall we?

First, let me clearly state I don't believe one must be of a certain race/orientation/gender/add-your-own-whatever-here to be able to effectively understand and capture the experiences of another. Read that again, please. However, it does present a challenge, and probably a lot of work, to pull it off successfully. The best example with which I'm familiar with is Joyce Carol Oates' novel What I Lived For, though there are certainly others from all across the arts. The problem with The Scottsboro Boys is that it doesn't work despite all of the obvious sincerity of its creators to do right by their subjects. Designing the play as a minstrel show only exposes what's missing, which is a basic understanding of what it really feels like, to paraphrase the best line in the play, "[to be] guilty because of how you look" and it also doesn't capture the frustration of the unjustly accused and incarcerated.

Though the book by David Thompson is expertly researched, and despite a lot of thought-provoking moments, it isn't really the story of these nine boys who were hauled off a train in Alabama in 1931 and wrongfully accused of raping two white women, and the travesty of the trials which followed. We never really learn much about them as individuals beyond how they fit within the group's dynamics within the theatrical construct. The sole exception isHaywood Patterson, whose book about his experiences was useful source material and thus emerges as the main character. But it's a portrayal of Patterson as representative of the group rather than an individual portrait of a real man. He's the only "boy" who gets his own numbers, and the two other solo slots go to the character of their lawyer and another doing a routine in drag. Patterson's the stand-in for the rest of the guys- and he'll have to do because it would take too long to tell everyone's story. Besides, there's an audience to entertain and enlighten, so even Patterson doesn't emerge as much more than a stock figure.

But it's the play's implicit attempt to "enlighten" (or educate) the audience that left me feeling really uncomfortable. At the conclusion of the performance I attended, the (mostly white) audience stood and gave the cast a thunderous standing ovation. That's not unusual- standing ovations have become the norm, at least in large San Francisco houses, and I suspect after a nearly two-hour show without an intermission most people wanted to get up from the horribly cramped seats in the Geary Theater. That's not to say the cast isn't good- actually it's great, with Clifton Duncan as Patterson and Jared Joesph as Mr. Bones both delivering exceptional performances (and Duncan is a solid triple-threat). The only exception is Hal Linden's Interlocutor, which seemed like a performance meant for an entirely different play, one being staged at a small dinner-theater house in Barstow.

But as the audience clapped and hollered its approval, I couldn't help but feel like I was in the middle of a white-guilt exorcism, that a healthy amount of that applause was the audience saying, "Yeah, we get it- it was a terrible thing that was and it still is- so we support you with our applause!" Kind of like a theatrical version of this. What goes unasked in The Scottsboro Boys is what can we do about it? Is there anything that can be done about it? Why is this still happening 80 years later? And really, shouldn't a play that's going to raise these issues also raise some questions?

It's not as if what landed the real Scottsboro Boys behind bars has changed all that much in the last eighty years. That truth is implied, and explicitly acknowledged only once by the line mentioned above. But the rest of the time there's entertainment to be had- the show wants to have it both ways and I suppose based on the solid reviews of it from other quarters it largely does for most folks. But it didn't for me.- in the end the minstrel show format of the play, meant to be the archest form of irony, was little more than a real minstrel show. Those nine boys, and everyone else who has been judged to be guilty because of how the look, deserve more.

As I was leaving the theater I found myself thinking about the montage of film clips at the end of Spike Lee's Bamboozled.  Lee's film (one of his best and least seen) is about a black television executive who creates a contemporary minstrel show featuring black actors in black face in an attempt to get fired. But his white boss, who thinks he's blacker than the executive, likes the idea and puts it on the air. The show, laden with the most offensive racist stereotypes imaginable, turns out to be a smash hit. The montage at the film's end drives home the point of the film with devastating clarity and poignancy. It's actually heartbreaking to watch. I'd like to think The Scottsboro Boys was aiming for something similar and missed widely, despite the good intentions of its creators. But as I pass by the theater every morning on my way to work, and I look at the poster advertising the show, which features the cast smiling broadly under their newsboy caps and dancing joyfully with tambourines in hand, I'm always struck with the uncomfortable thought that what the poster is saying to many people, without much irony, is "Come see the dancing Negros!"  And there just isn't enough in this show to make them regret doing just that.
The image used to promote "The Scottsboro Boys"

The actual Scottsboro Boys. They deserve better.