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‘The Scottsboro Boys’ on Broadway: Minstrels, cruelty and longing

The Chicago Tribune

A few minutes into the last musical bearing the names of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, just as the shrewdly appropriated but pervasively ignoble Anglo-American tradition of the minstrel show is becoming almost unbearable to watch, one of the Scottsboro Boys starts to sing of his loneliness.

As sung by the deeply resonant Joshua Henry, playing a real-life character who died in an Alabama jail, always professing his innocence of trumped-up rape charges, Kander and Ebb’s simple melody to “Go Back Home” also is almost unbearable. Almost unbearably beautiful. Right from the first plaintive chord.

And from that critical turn on, “The Scottsboro Boys” starts to do what all the great Kander and Ebb shows (“Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “The Kiss of the Spiderwoman”) have always done. It shows us that longing and tenderness always co-exists with cruelty and corruption. It reveals the human costs of oppression. And it reminds us that all that the venerable showbusiness traditions—vaudeville, cabaret, minstrelsy, Broadway shows themselves—were, at various points in the 20th century, used for cruel purpose. In other words, the musicals of Kander and Ebb, and really only the musicals of Kander and Ebb, make us see that mass-entertainment forms embrace the dark side because we spend so much time there ourselves.

“The Scottsboro Boys,” which features a gutsy book by David Thompson and opened Sunday night on Broadway, tells the story of the nine African-American men pulled from a boxcar in 1931 in the Northeast corner of Alabama.

This is a thematically uncompromising and initially alienating piece that seems (seems) unlikely to pack the populist punch of the big titles.

Fearlessly directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman and superbly performed by a cast of 12 African-Americans and one white man (that would be John Cullum, an intoxicating mix of fading malevolence and vulnerability), “The Scottsboro Boys” tells the real-life story of the capture and trials of these young men using the rubric of the minstrel show, replete with the traditional Mr. Bones (the superb Colman Domingo), Mr. Tango (the superb Forrest McClendon) and Cullum’s disconcerting, all-white Interlocutor.

The show is jarring and troubling at first—not least because you are asked to embrace not only this disturbing tale of injustice but also the racist form of its actual re-telling. Some bitter comedy emerges in the frame, performed with disconcerting exuberance, but not the permission to laugh. By the end of this intermissionless show, the tellers have taken control of their own story, but, in practical theatrical terms, that’s a long time to wait. That is the great risk behind “The Scottsboro Boys” (and there is a cost). But it is also the show’s ace in the hole.

Reportedly, the show (previously seen both Off-Broadway and at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis) has re-calibrated itself more toward telling the actually human stories and a little away from so much of the clattering nomenclature of minstrelsy. That was a good move—and, to my mind, further steps could yet have been taken. But you surely feel like you get to know these young men now—youthful, innocent, ill educated and thus ill-equipped to deal with their travails in a hostile. The show is stuffed with bravura, impassioned, individual performances that fuse into an inestimably powerful ensemble.

“The Scottsboro Boys” ultimately links the agonies of these boys to broader causes, building a sense of hope and progress that you don’t see in “Chicago” and “Cabaret.”

But then brutal American racism is harder for us to take in the theater than comedic Cook County corruptions. And it is, in the final analysis, an essential subject for Kander and Ebb.

And this show reminds us that, like Velma and Roxy in “Chicago,” a couple of the real-life Scottsboro Boys, the luckier ones who got out alive, actually — wait for it, wait for it — ended up doing vaudeville.

Kander and Ebb’s theatrical world has always been so close to the real thing.

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