BWW Review: SCOTTSBORO BOYS Sings Truth To Power ~ Director Jeff Whiting And Cast Deliver A Tour De Force
The legacy of racism is like an endless stretch of barbed wire whose blades rip at the American soul and are stained by the sins of social injustice. Among the travesties of this cancer are the stories of countless black men unjustly imprisoned without recourse to due process.
SCOTTSBORO BOYS recounts the travails of nine such casualties of a society and system that failed them in a most unconventional but illuminating manner. In the way that Charlie Chaplin impaled Hitler with devastating mockery in The Great Dictator, John Kander and Fred Ebb (the co-creators of Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman) adopted the minstrel show as their sword of choice not only to peel away at the hypocrisy and brutality of Jim Crow but also to probe the depth and texture of the young men's pain and suffering.
In 1931, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright hopped a freight train in Alabama on a quest to find employment. Their journey was sidetracked when they were falsely accused of raping two white women. Their case became a cause célèbre, yet no amount of national attention or subsequent appeals could free them from their plight.
In its current iteration at Phoenix Theatre, SCOTTSBORO BOYS is a tour de force. Director/choreographer Jeff Whiting embraces minstrelsy as metaphor while never allowing the buffoonery of the authorities to overshadow the desperation of the inmates. It's a perfect balance, amplified by performances that leave you unsettled, breathless, and inspired.
The black minstrels' charge, overseen throughout the play by the white Interlocutor (Mike Lawler), is to entertain a lone woman (Sasha Wordlaw) waiting for a bus (Spoiler hint: Think December 1st, 1955 in nearby Montgomery) with the story of the nine teens.
Walter Belcher (Mr. Tambo) and Trent Armand Kendall (Mr. Bones) are delightful and engaging in their exuberant and clownish parodies of lawmen, guards, and executioners. Yet, for each chuckle they may evoke, there is an equally unsettling discomfort that comes with the knowledge of their characters' abuses.
On a stage whose set (Douglas Clarke) is simple and intimate, the clever reconfiguration of a dozen metallic chairs transports the characters from boxcars to courthouses to prison cells. Every element in this production from Michael J. Eddy's lighting to Adriana Diaz's costumes and Jeff Kennedy's musical direction weaves together seamlessly to create the appropriate sense of the moment.
In the end, however, it is the nine actors whose every name deserves mention for their emotionally compelling and intense performances as the Scottsboro boys: Wesley Barnes (Olen), Miguel Jackson (Clarence), Christopher Patterson (Ozie), Steven Charles (Willie), Rashad Naylor (Charlie), John Batchan (Eugene), Trequon Tate (Andy), Michael Thompson (Roy), and the extraordinary Nathan Andrew Riley (Haywood) whose powerhouse renditions of Nothin' and You Can't Do Me are moving declarations of the indomitable spirit of resistance against evil.
SCOTTSBORO BOYS continues its run at Phoenix Theatre through April 30th.
Photo credit to Reg Madison Photography