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