BWW Review: Theatre Raleigh's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
When you open a program to find a page recommending ways that people can take action after seeing a musical (like registering to vote and supporting groups like the ACLU), you know that you're going to see something special. Theatre Raleigh's last show of their 2019 Summer Season, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, is a daring musical about the Scottsboro Boys trials in the 1930s in Alabama. It has a company of all African-American performers, except one, and takes inspiration from minstrel shows. The show is directed and brilliantly choreographed by Gerry McIntyre who manages to make it very impactful, without feeling overdone.
The Scottsboro Boys was on Broadway in 2010 and was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, though it didn't win any. It later went on to have a successful London run. The show features a book by David Thompson and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, best known for CABARET and CHICAGO. The show runs a tight 100 minutes with no intermission, which works to its advantage as the tension isn't broken until the end of the piece.
The story of the musical is based on a true incident in the 1930s in which nine young African-American men were falsely accused of rape by two white women. All of them had been pulled off of a train at the same time and the women accused them out of fear of being arrested themselves for their work as prostitutes. The boys, who ranged in age from 12 to 19 years old, were taken to the nearest jail in Scottsboro, Alabama and sentenced to death.
However, the Supreme Court agreed to an appeal which started a series of trials as the boys' Northern supporters refused to accept their verdict. Celebrated Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibowitz from New York took the case pro bono despite the anti-Semitism he met in Alabama. The musical follows the boys' from that fateful train journey through the years of all of their trials.
The musical borrows from the minstrel tradition, the early 19th century show characterized by the use of blackface on white or African-American performers that portrayed African-Americans as dumb, lazy, simple, happy-go-lucky people. The one white man in the show plays the Interlocutor, who is the master of the minstrel show, and two of the other actors play the traditional characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.
Some of the songs in the show like the "Minstrel March" and "Shout!" are done in the upbeat minstrel style. The lead character, Haywood Patterson, has a few heartfelt ballads including "You Can't Do Me" and "Nothin'" which starts out as a ballad and morphs into something more painfully upbeat despite its darker lyrics at the insistence of the Interlocutor. The nightmare sequence of "Electric Chair" is chilling, but a great showcase for the youngest member of the cast, Michael Lassiter as Eugene Williams.
Some of the best numbers in the show are "Alabama Ladies" and "Never Too Late," which feature two of the men dressed up as the female accusers, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. With full swishy skirts and feminine dancing, Melvin Gray Jr. and Trey McCoy make the most of their parts and win lots of laughs from the audience. The decision to have the women played by male members of the cast definitely makes the story a bit easier for the audience to handle.
Darius Jordan Lee is fantastic from his powerful voice to his acting as Haywood Patterson, a young man determined for the truth to be known. Jajuan Cofield and Gerard M. Williams are very touching as brothers Andy and Roy Wright. David Robbins is great as Mr. Bones and plays many small characters but is particularly funny as the sheriff. Jason Daniel Rath's Mr. Tambo is equally good and while he's hilarious in his other parts, it's as lawyer Samuel Leibowitz that he truly shines, especially in his number, "That's Not the Way We Do Things."
Aya Wallace portrays The Lady, who is silent most of the show but joins in the dance numbers and helps with scene changes. Towards the end, the reveal of her character is very poignant. David McClutchey is perfect as the Interlocutor, bringing across a circus-master-like showmanship but with a hint of something menacing underneath the surface that suggests that he isn't as benevolent as he would have the other men - and the audience - believe.
The dancing, choreographed by McIntyre, is one of the best parts of the show as all of the cast are great dancers. The set, designed by Chris Bernier, is simply but very effective. The costumes, by Dorothy Austin-Harrell, are also lovely and the contrast between the everyday clothing of most of the class and the outrageous outfits of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo works well. The lighting by Christina Munich adds a lot to the show, especially in the way she plays with shadows and particularly in the nightmare scene.
Putting this story into a minstrel format is very effective in further making the point of how many layers there are to the oppression caused by racism. The show can be uncomfortable at times, but it's a good and necessary discomfort that causes you to think. This is the American history that we aren't taught at school and that it's important that we learn. I would caution against bringing children to see the show because of the sensitive topics it covers.
In Artistic Director Lauren Kennedy Brady's note at the front of the program, she says that this is the farthest South this show has ever been performed. She says that Theatre Raleigh hopes to start a discussion by sharing this musical because "in a time where the criminal justice system in our country is still flawed, this is a story that desperately needs told." The Scottsboro Boys brings a little-known story to life, illuminating a part of our past that it would be easier to forget. But it's important that these stories aren't swept aside if we want to ensure that they aren't repeated. If you can get a ticket before the run ends on September 15, I would consider this show required viewing for anyone who cares about the past, present, and future of America.
For more information, please visit: www.theatreraleigh.com.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Robertson