BWW Review: BW/Beck's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is Both Compelling and Uneven
The incident started when the women got off a train and accused the African American teenagers of rape. It resulted in the boys being arrested, put in jail, and assigned an incompetent lawyer. In spite of the fact that there was no evidence that the youth had committed any crime, all but a 13-year-old were convicted of rape and sentenced to death.
An appeal, due to a rushed trial, an all-white jury, and no attempt to mount a defense, followed. Even though at the retrial one of the women recanted her accusation, the verdict was the same. Numerous other appeals and trials, mounted with the help of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a dedicated Jewish pro-Bono lawyer, were lodged.
Eventually, all but three of the boys were released. But it wasn't until November 21, 2013, that the Alabama parole board voted to grant posthumous pardons to the three who had not been pardoned. What happened to each of these young men, could be the basis for another pathos-filled epic.
The case has been explored in many works of literature, music, theatre, film and television.
"THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS," the musical, has the basic framework of a minstrel show, with a company that, except for one person, the Interlocutor, consists entirely of African-American performers.
The book is by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, the collaborators on such shows as "CHICAGO," "CABARET" and "KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN," all of which were based on societal injustice.
"THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" was the last collaboration between Kander and Ebb.
The show opened Off-Broadway and then moved to Broadway in 2010. Despite receiving twelve Tony Award nominations (it won none), it ran only two months. It is theorized that the reason the show didn't run longer was that "people did not know how to deal with it." It is not a show for everyone, especially those who want to see escapist shows, rather than musical dramas.
The Big Apple production was not without controversy. On November 6, 2010, about thirty people gathered at the Lyceum Theatre, where "THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" was playing, arguing that "the use of minstrelsy and blackface were racist."
The production team said the minstrel show is "not meant to demean or degrade anybody," but rather that it "houses the story we're trying to tell." That view was affirmed by TV personality Whoopi Goldberg who said, "The people who are protesting this show, 90% of the people have not seen it. ... People are protesting saying that it shouldn't be a minstrel show, this is too serious. What people don't understand is that you have to bring information to people in a most invigorating way."
The present day staging of the script, based on the attack-attitude of POTUS, the rise of White Nationalism, the attack on young black men by some police, racial profiling, rising anti-Semitism, and the overlooking of blacks, women and Asians in entertainment awards and economic positions, is quite justified.
Besides its social message, "THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" is a rare opportunity for African American male performers, as almost all of the cast is portrayed by blacks. The Beck production is also an opportunity for Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre students as they, plus one alum, make up the cast.
(Spoiler alert, there are two women and a white man in the show. A female for no apparent reason plays one of the "boys," and another female plays The Lady, whose presence in the last scene adds a mind-blowing wrap to the author's message. Non-BW student, Greg Violand, serves as the show's Interlocutor).
The college has had its foot on the stage of the show since the beginning. Derrick Cobey, a 2001 grad, originated the role of Andy Wright in the Broadway staging.
The psychological effect of "THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" is moving. It is impossible to watch the action and not want to scream about injustice.
Unfortunately, the production, itself, under the direction of Jon Martinez, is uneven.
Many of the performances are excellent, filled with clear characterizations and emotionally felt lines, others were surface-level presentations with words, rather than meanings, being presented.
The musical vocalizations, especially "Go Back Home," considered to be one of the best mournful ballads-of-longing written for a musical, were nicely done.
The choreography, which includes some intricate tap dancing, was generally creative, but not always precisely presented.
Many of the young actors seemed to lack an understanding of the minstrel show and "Yazza-boss" attitudes that degraded black men. Mimicking vocalizations, overdone facial and eye movements, demeaning side-comments, and put-down jokes are part of the over-done sounds and images that needed to be created. This was not always the case.
Matthew Webb's orchestra had the right sounds to help the cast create the needed mind-set and, wisely, underscored rather than drowned out the performers.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" is a powerful piece of historical theatre whose message must be heard, especially in these days of the continuance and rise of racial and religious prejudice. The Beck Center/Baldwin Wallace Music Theatre Program production itself was inconsistent in its overall effect, but is still a staging worth seeing.
"THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS" is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through February 23, 2020. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org
Next up for the BW Music Theater Program: "FREEDOM SUMMER," which follows the crusade for equality as activists navigate racism, corruption, and violence in the 1964 Jim Crow south. Music by Charlie H. Ray & Sam Columbus, Lyrics and Book by Charlie H. Ray, Directed by Dana A. Iannuzzi.