By J. KELLY NESTRUCK
No crime in American history-- let alone a crime that never occurred-- produced as many trials, convictions, reversals, and retrials as did an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on a Southern Railroad freight run on March 25, 1931. Over the course of the two decades that followed, the struggle for justice of the "Scottsboro Boys," as the black teens were called, made celebrities out of anonymities, launched and ended careers, wasted lives, produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political left.
Fast forward to Fall 2010, in their two most famous works, Cabaret and Chicago, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb used popular forms of entertainment as metaphors for our tainted world. A resigned Sally Bowles insisted that “life is a cabaret,” while cocksure Billy Flynn asserted that “it's all a circus … the whole world, all show business.”
The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb's troubling new musical, begins with a slightly less definitive pronouncement. “Everyone's a minstrel tonight,” sings the Interlocutor (Tony Award winner John Cullum, the only Caucasian in the cast) at the start of this show that repurposes the trappings of minstrelsy to revisit a racial injustice from the not-so-distant past.
Now getting its Broadway premiere in a powerful and unsettling production by Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys is in fact the final collaboration between Kander and Ebb, assuming the former doesn't have any unfinished shows hiding away in a drawer somewhere. (Ebb died in 2004.)
Under the command of the Interlocutor, a company of dynamic African-American performers perform the true story of the Scottsboro boys with a little help – and hindrance – from the sadistic stock minstrel characters Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones (the formidable caricaturists Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo),
Riding the rails in 1931 Alabama, nine black boys aged from 12 to 19 were arrested and accused of the gang rape of two white women. After they were sentenced to death, their objectionable convictions became a cause célèbre that led to the Supreme Court and, at one point, to 300,000 Americans protesting in 110 U.S. cities.
As the illiterate Haywood Patterson, who eventually learned to write and penned a book in prison, Winnipeg-born Joshua Henry gives a tremendous lead performance. Throughout his incarceration, Haywood remains defiant and tells the truth even when, in a cruel paradox, a lie would set him free. Henry plays him with a quivering, furious integrity, but also enough flawed humanity that he never turns into a symbol.
While Henry showed off his tank of a body in Green Day's American Idiot earlier this year, he now gets to prove what kind of dramatic ammunition he is packing in numbers like Nothin', in which, stuck in an impossible situation, Haywood performs a brutally slow, mocking shuck-and-jive.
Kander's catchy music – a mix of ragtime and American folk song – is effectively undercut by Ebb's lyrics. A song like Southern Days is beautiful, even as its ironic lyrics aim to wring all the nostalgia out of standards like My Old Kentucky Home that owe their origins to minstrel shows.
Stroman, who showed that nothing succeeds like excess with The Producers, here directs with impressive economy. With a few quick movements, the cast transforms the simple set of chairs and wooden planks into, for instance, a train chugging out of Chattanooga with tambourines for wheels.
Her most chilling staging comes during Electric Chair, a dream tap ballet in which the youngest of the boys (the naturally talented Jeremy Gumbs) has a nightmare about his upcoming execution that turns into what seems like a mad Mickey Mouse cartoon (Mickey being one of the few remaining pop-culture icons still to bear the traces of minstrelsy and blackface).
While Stroman's choreography and the energetic performances keep tempting you to enjoy The Scottsboro Boys's spectacle, the form the show takes never allows you to do so with a clear conscience.
The minstrelsy aspects – including a scene in blackface – have proved controversial, with small protests organized outside the show on recent weekends. But the cast's twisted portrayal of the women who made the accusations and the boys' Jewish lawyer are more potentially offensive than anything involving the African-American characters, whose side the show takes unequivocally.