Scottsboro Boys

You may want to read the review of the Signature production in DCTheatreScene by Susan Galbraith

Susan wrote in her review,Signature Theatre and its own “Scottsboro boys” have given us a musical for our times.  Smart. Searing. Dangerous. Funny. Provocative.” But before you weigh in on agreeing or not with her assessment, maybe you could help us unpack what were there the original writers, the members of the creative team, and the performers trying to do with this musical?

A reflection on any of these questions would be appreciated.

  1. Why might have Kander and Ebb chosen a minstrelsy show to tell the story, and do their choices answer convincingly the question – “Who gets to tell the story?”
  2. What are we to make of performances led by Chaz Alexander Coffin (Mr. Tambo) and Stephen Scott Wormley (Mr. Bones) of the troupe of minstrels, and in particular the stereotypes they portray?
  3. Why does director Joe Calarco have The Lady, played by Felicia Curry, standing or sitting virtually throughout the show between the stage action and the audience?
  4. And evaluatively, where should we draw the line between enjoying Jared Grimes’ choreography as “high sexy entertainment” and the dark subjects portrayed?
  5.  What do the scenic elements of the theater “Doll House” and the revolving proscenium arch add to the show? or do they distract?

8 comments on “Scottsboro Boys”

  1. Martin Wittel

    Kander and Ebb’s use of the minstrelsy show format for this story of the “Scottsboro Boys” serves several purposes.
    – It provides a format that enables the changes in pace and mood in the music and dance necessary to keep the audience engaged throughout performance. While the content, via lyrics or gesture, repeatedly brought the audience back to face the ugly reality of the situation—the music buffered what otherwise would have been unbearable experience for most. Audience and cast alike.
    – The use of minstrelsy also highlights how the existence, and often unconscious acceptance, of stereotypes bleeds over into real life decisions and actions. To the extent an individual accepts and conforms to society’s prevailing stereotypes, order is maintained and conflict (at least on the surface) is managed and predictable. We all have our parts to play–and should play them as written. Recognition by the individual of the falseness of the stereotype results in internal conflict so long as the individual outwardly complies—while non-conformance most often results in mild to severe coercion, and only sometimes is met with tolerance.
    – Physically surviving in Jim Crow South (and not just there and then) required acting that sometimes may not have been too far removed from what was found in the minstrelsy show. The damage to both society and the individual of playing false roles is highlighted in the “Scottsboro Boys.” The inner conflict and the tremendous personal courage required to take a stand is starkly shown as well. In a sense, Kander and Ebb’s choice of format very well reflects an ongoing reality (as shown by one cast member’s use of a Black Lives Matter shirt at the conclusion of the show)—and leads to engagement with both current events and universal themes.

  2. Ari Jacobson

    As a long time fan of classic musical theatre and Kander and Ebb specifically, I was amazed to see such vital, important, boundary pushing work coming more than FOURTY YEARS into their partnership. This piece genuinely moves the goalposts of what musical theatre can be and say, using the same styles and techniques they pioneered beginning in the sixties to create something shatteringly new. One perfect example: in K&E’s 1966 classic Cabaret, a nostalgic, blandly patriotic and apparently apolitical choral tune (Tomorrow Belongs To Me) takes on a chilling effect in context as it becomes clear that the “bright tomorrow” being longed for is one of ascendant fascism. In Scottsboro Boys, Mr. Interlocutor attempts to force the boys away from telling their truth, insisting they paper over the injustices they’ve suffered with a nostalgic, blandly patriotic and apparently apolitical choral tune about the South (Southern Days), but in a reversal from Cabaret, the boys gradually hijack the lyrics and begin to use the beautifully insipid structure to tell their side of the Southern Experience… a microcosm of the techniques employed by the rest of piece, using the forms of musical theatre stretching back to racist minstrel shows, yet subverting them to tell this story of real, suffering people struggling for redemption.

  3. Susan Galbraith

    I saw this production three times. The first time was opening night and I was reviewing. I was down front and center. I saw everything through the performance of Felicia Curry, a character who was brilliantly threaded through the entire story-line by director Joe Calarco and who both served as both the lens and the glue that held the story (and performers) together and the moral compass (staring us down with her gaze as we dared laugh at the entertainment.) The second performance I was rewarded by the brave and emotionally harrowing journeys of Black actors playing Black minstrel performers playing the Black prisoners, or maybe it was the Scottsboro Boys finding themselves in some purgatory production as minstrels. Hard to say but the most emotional aspect for me was when as human being they were torn asunder, some turned out into a hostile world and the others left to rot in jail.

    The third time I saw the show, this Sunday matinee, sitting even farther back in the audience, I could fully appreciate the stunning work of the individual performances.

    Stephen Scott Wormley and Chaz Alexander Coffin do more than double duty, starting off as the reading passengers on some cosmic transport system, then performing the star turns of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo in a minstrel show, and as those characters specializing in White characters respectively: Sherriff and his Deputy and then create show stopping creatures of the Prosecutor and the inebriated Southern lawyer Johnnie Walker and finally Coffin showing up as the razzle-dazzle New York lawyer by way of Broadway and the Borscht belt.

    Lamont Walker II carries the burden of the lead in the central story, the modern angry rebel and voice for all African American males. But perhaps I also detect African roots – in his singing and in channeling the warrior ancestors. It’s a powerful combination.

    Aramie Payton is heartbreaking as the twelve year-old Eugene Williams and delivers the high-voice hamonies in all the songs while Darnell Purcell Jr. displays both a masterful bass sound as well as portraying a kind of rock-solid character.

    The blend of these voices, some of it a capella, is gorgeous. The choreography is never just dancing. Think of the movements and gestures of the guards torturing the youngest Scottsboro boy with electrocution nightmares or later in the show when an entertaining tapping “shuffle ball change” turns into an angry stomp.

    C.K. Edwards and Jonathan Adriel play brothers in the show and dazzle us with their dancing athleticism, only to be challenged in tap by Joseph Monroe Webb as “the rat” Olen. DeWitt Fleming, Jr. and Malik Ali create hysterical parodies as the “Southern Sunburned Sunflowers” of Alabama, as harlots the “curdled cream of society” who are nonetheless “our White trash,” but they dig much deeper into the agony of lies and the cost of telling the truth.

    This is after all what the show is about at its core. “Can we this time tell the truth?” Haywood asks the Interlocutor near the beginning of the minstrel performance. The men keep insisting on breaking through the cliches and sour minstrel jokes and delivering the emotional truth — and there is beauty in that.

  4. Karen Garlick

    I can understand why some people decide they can’t take this show. Perhaps African Americans feel they can’t look at this subject again. They must feel discouraged. So little has changed.
    A German friend of ours was brought to this country in the thirties to escape the Nazis and found himself in Alabama while the trials of the Scottsboro Boys were going on. It all feels so painful.
    Then there are people offended at the very idea of this subject treated as a song-and-dance spectacle.
    But the sad thing is such a decision makes them miss a powerful theatrical experience.

  5. anmt

    The Lady’s (Felicia Curry) role in the play seemed to act a filter and bridge for us in the audience. Through her constant focus and intense reactions to the actions on stage, she directed our attention to the underlying conflicts in the minstrel show. She often turned to the audience with sharp looks of disbelief as if asking us why we were actually laughing at the surface humor and not getting the deeper tragedy, making us complicit in the unfolding injustice and racism. When she went up onstage she acted as the supporting motherly presence for all the boys and so humanized their plight.

    This show is even more relevant today than when it first premiered.

  6. CJ Welsh

    Director Joe Calarco has the character, “The Lady”, standing or sitting throughout the show as a silent witness. “The Lady” is perceived as the mother of the boys, a witness, and Rosa Parks. Rosa McCauley met her future husband, Raymond Parks in 1931. He was the first activist that Rosa met. Raymond was a long-time member of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He helped raise money to pay for the legal fees of the Scottsboro Boys. The Parks kept involved with the Scottsboro Boys throughout their staggered release from prison. Their case, Emmett Till’s death, and many other injustices inspired Rosa Parks to take a stance and refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on Thursday, December 1, 1955.

  7. CJ Welsh

    Kander and Ebb chose a minstrel show to tell the story of The Scottsboro Boys, because the genre was used in the 19th and early 20th century as a popular form of entertainment for white segregationists and bigots that mocked and belittled African Americans. By the Scottsboro Boys’ trial in 1931, this genre had moved from the theater stage to the movie screen and was re-popularized. The Scottsboro Boys’ case was seen as a pathetic mock of justice, with the boys being the actual victims. Through a minstrel show, Kander and Ebb were able to tell this tragic story through the voices of the victims in the very exact way they were perceived and objectified by a southern society.

  8. Salim Saboud

    It is quite a powerful musical. Although based on a sad story of the Boys it did entertain throughout, and deliver a message of the plight of African Americans in that period. Hope we’ll get to see more of your projects next season.

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