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Review: The Scottsboro Boys @ The Guthrie Theater

By Tad Simons
August 8, 2010
Mpls.St.Paul Magazine
http://blogs.mspmag.com/themorningafter/2010/08/review-the-scottsboro-boys-the.html

Is The Scottsboro Boys-the final musical from the
legendary writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Ebb
died in 2004), who gave us Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss
of the Spider Woman-Broadway's next big hit?

Or, is it a shamelessly racist piece of claptrap that
traffics in every imaginable negative stereotype for
the sole purpose of entertaining rooms full of wealthy
white people?

Or, is it the most outrageously subversive play ever to
hit a Guthrie stage: a shocking, viciously satirical,
brutally honest flaying of American culture that-in the
long tradition of jesters who use humor to tell "the
truth" to the king-lambastes, lampoons, and blasphemes
in order to reveal deeper, more disgraceful truths that
Americans might otherwise ignore?

Or is it all of these things? And then some?

These are the sorts of questions likely to be spinning
around in your head after sitting through The
Scottsboro Boys, an unlikely musical built around the
tragic true story of nine black men from Alabama in
1931who were wrongly accused of rape and spent years in
jail waiting for the legal system to exonerate them.

The Scottsboro saga is rightly regarded as one of the
most shameful episodes in the history of American
jurisprudence, though it is also viewed by some as an
evolutionary leap for the American justice system, if
only because the men weren't immediately lynched.
Depending on how one looks at it, what happened to the
Scottsboro boys was either a travesty of justice or
evidence of the relative fairness, however imperfect,
of the American legal system. (After many years, most
of the charges were dropped and the men paroled, but
their lives were ruined.)

As the kids like to say, it's complicated. Complicating
things much further is the musical itself, which
chooses to present this unfortunate episode in history
as a minstrel show, the pre-vaudevillian art form that
died out because of its inherent racism. You can't
rinse a minstrel show clean of racism, but you can use
it as a prism to explore certain aspects of race-and,
though it's tremendously risky (and not entirely
successful), that's what The Scottsboro Boys attempts
to do.

The show wears its heresies like a badge. It comes
complete with black actors in blackface, black actors
portraying white people, and disconcertingly jaunty
tunes about such entertaining topics as frying in an
electric chair and the homey comforts of slave life.
White people are vilified. Black people are skewered.
Jews are mocked. Southern people are slandered. On the
surface, this may be a shiny, polished musical with
upbeat tunes and lots of unexpected humor, but burbling
beneath that surface charm is an angry, disturbing
energy that's difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.
It's as if the writers set out to turn every cultural
taboo about race on its head, spin it around a few
times, and spit it back in your face with a vengeance.

The Scottsboro Boys isn't created merely to entertain;
it is engineered to send you out into the night full of
ambivalence and conflicted feelings about what you just
saw. In any given scene, you might be thinking, as I
did, "Oh, here are bunch of black guys in blackface
singing a happy song. But wait, I'm supposed to be
disgusted by the very thought of black entertainers
acting this way. But strangely, I'm not as disgusted as
I should be, because it's just part of the show, and
the actors know what they're doing. None of them is
being forced to act like that. Then again, if these
guys wanted to be in this show and get paid, dressing
and acting like that had to be a prerequisite for the
job. But if this really is as crazily racist as it
looks, why would any self-respecting actor even
participate in it?" In this and many other ways, The
Scottsboro Boys is a show that smiles at you big and
bright while it's stabbing you repeatedly in the back
with a large, culturally lethal knife. That is its
genius, and also its greatest liability.

How does this peculiar mind-swirl work? The show starts
out with the performers hopping happily down the aisles
promising the audience an entertaining show with a
happy ending. There are a couple of deliriously
cheerful song-and-dance numbers, then the nine boys get
arrested and the real story begins. One of the boys
asks if he can tell "the truth" this time, and the
Interlocutor (played by David A. Brinkley) grants him
permission. The actors inform the audience that the
"white" parts, including the white women, will be
played by black men.

From there, The Scottsboro Boys goes into absurdist
overdrive. The town sheriff (played brilliantly by
Colman Domingo) is portrayed as a bigoted idiot, the
women who claim they have been raped are portrayed as
attention-seeking ditzes, the boys' defense lawyer is
portrayed as a drunk and a clown (complete with bulbous
red nose), the boys' second lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz,
is portrayed as a Jew who talks so fast people in the
South can't understand him, and the only actual white
actor in the play, the previously mentioned
Interlocuter, is portrayed as an affable lout. Indeed,
virtually every stereotype of white stupidity and
arrogance is played for laughs. But then again, so is
every noxious stereotype of black servitude. It's all
so over-the-top and cartoonish that it's hard to take
these blasts of bad taste seriously, yet you must-
because, hell, the prosecuting attorney just accused
the witness of taking "Jew money" to change her
testimony!

How to react, then?

The play asks you to go along with the joke, even if it
makes you feel uncomfortable. When the actors are
happily dancing and singing about the joys of being
electrocuted, or crooning a wistful tune about slavery
that contains such lines as "Don't you miss the sound
of darkie's humming?," the mind goes into a bizarre
tailspin. The songs themselves are beautiful, the
singing and choreography exquisite, and the
performances stellar, but the subject matter at its
core, particularly the various hot buttons of racism
the show gleefully pushes, are deeply unsettling. The
inherently incendiary and comical nature of the
minstrel-show structure also collides quite frequently
with the more serious parts of the show, causing a kind
of emotional whiplash. To top it off, there are so many
layers of irony banging around in this production, it's
hard to keep track.

For instance, the trials are portrayed as sham show
trials, exercises of empty rhetoric about "justice" and
"fairness" that are anything but just and fair-the
suggestion being that, for white people, the trials
were nothing but a form of entertainment, a spectacle
all the more enticing for the possibility that they
might end in a few grisly executions. The first layer
of irony is that, as the play unfolds, these same
trials are now being presented as a form of
entertainment, to you, having been co-opted into one of
the emptiest spectacles of all, the Broadway musical.
The second layer of irony is that, once again,
audiences of predominately white people are watching a
minstrel show to be entertained, just like they did
back in the good ol' days. And the third, fourth, and
fifth layers of irony are that the show was written not
by a black person trying to illuminate the truth, but
by a few white guys who were trying to . . . what?
Assuage their white guilt? Create a musical absolutely
everyone can be ambivalent about?

I'd like to believe that the minds behind The
Scottsboro Boys are intelligent enough to know
precisely what they're doing, and that this play is
intended to be as subversive as it looks. But it's hard
to be sure. On one hand, the show is a highly polished
theatrical product, with expert singing, choreography,
acting, and staging, created with the intention of
making money on its next stop, Broadway. The set itself
is a brilliant marriage of pragmatism and art,
featuring little more than ten or so silver chairs that
are cleverly stacked and reconfigured in various ways
to create a train, a jail, a courtroom. Kudos to the
creative team. Maybe even a few awards come Tony time.

On the other hand, The Scottsboro Boys also manipulates
the well-worn conventions of musical theatre to lull
audiences into a mental safety zone, a non-threatening
cognitive space where everyone knows it's just a show-
then dares to fire the uncomfortable "truth" about
American racism at the audience with both barrels.

Whether both shots hit is open for debate. While it's
almost certainly true that blacks saw the Scottsboro
trials as a farce, and the white agents of "justice" in
the various trials and re-trials of the Scottsboro boys
as clowns in a rigged circus, is actually portraying
them as clowns going too far? Is the minstrel-show
structure a stroke of genius or too clever by half?
Does it obscure the show's good intentions, or
obliterate them?

Whatever your reaction, simply "enjoying" The
Scottsboro Boys isn't really an option for any thinking
person. The minstrel-show structure is too racially
charged, and the historical resonances too immediate.
Parts of the show can be enjoyed and admired,
certainly, but the sum total is disorienting, and often
disturbing-which may or may not be a good thing,
depending on how dark you like your comedy.

What should perhaps disturb you more is that the play
implicitly assumes that we as a nation are somehow
beyond the reprehensible events of the early 1930s-or
at least socially evolved enough to recognize how
horribly wrong the real Scottsboro saga was, and have
achieved enough progress and distance from these events
to find humor in them. But a second or two of
reflection should be enough to render that assumption
false. Our prisons are full of young black men arrested
and incarcerated for bogus drug crimes-for, in many
cases, selling a product many white people desperately
want. Rape, murder, and violence are still America's
favorite form of TV and movie entertainment.
Sensational trials (O.J., Mike Tyson, Bernie Madoff,
Lindsay Lohan, etc.) still get plenty of media
attention, and innocent people still go to jail. In our
own backyard, Koua Fong Lee just spent the last three
years in prison. His crime? Buying a Toyota.

In far too many ways, not enough has changed since the
1930s to allow The Scottsboro Boys as much artistic
license as it takes. Yet there is a kind of outlandish
brilliance to the thing, a degree of theatrical bravado
that must be acknowledged, maybe even applauded. After
experiencing the discomfiting stew of cognitive
dissonance that is The Scottsboro Boys, you may stand
up and cheer, or be seized by a strange feeling of
cultural vertigo. I wouldn't be surprised if some
people bolt from the theater in anger and disgust. I
also wouldn't be surprised if it wins every award
possible at next year's Tony's.

It's that kind of show.

The Scottsboro Boys continues at The Guthrie Theater
through Sept. 25, guthrietheater.org

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