Book : David Thompson
Music and Lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb
Director and Choreographer: Susan Stroman
Reviewer: Chris Rogers
Rosa Parks sits on a bus, famously refusing the bus driver’s insistence to go to the coloured section at the back. This is the last scene the audience is left with before a projection tells us that the remaining Scottsboro Boys were exonerated posthumously by an Alabama Governor only last year.
The Scottsboro Boys is the true story of nine black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women and sentenced to death in 1931, in what is now seen as a landmark case in the miscarriage of justice.
In an excellent use of irony, Stroman Thompson and Ebb reverse the idea of the Minstrel show -white people performing in blackface, lampooning the presented black characters – to tell the terrible story of these nine young African American boys in a brilliantly hilarious way. Led by Julian Glover playing a solid mix between Colonel Sanders and Uncle Sam as the white leader of the troupe, the black minstrels perform their farcical recount of events. Bow-legged Sheriffs and happy-slapping deputies, ridiculous prostitute “Alabama Ladies” and draconian Governors are portrayed by the ensemble cast who double as the nine convicts.
Susan Strohman supplies an excellent combination of simple stagecraft, slapstick, beautiful silhouetted imagery and delicious choreography to lead the audience to the dire opposite of the promised happy end. The music by Kander and Ebb is engaging and at pointed moments beautiful.
The heroes of the performance undoubtedly are the cast playing the Scottsborough Boys. All of them are terrific dancers and good close harmony singers. Though not the strongest voice, Brandon Victor Dixon delivers an acting performance in Haywood Patterson that contests the urge to blink. Coleman Domingo and Forrest McClendon had the audience in their pocket with their fantastic double act and the young Keenan Munn-Francis plays a wonderfully nuanced 13-year old with exceptional tap dancing skills. James T Lane delivers the best performance of the night, achieving the perfect balance between the farce and drama of both Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates.
Of course this musical can only skim historical detail and hint at the greater involvement of the communist party and the sustained effort of its campaigners, but one does wonder whether at times the slapstick representations in fact do disservice to the story’s dramatic turn and indeed its characters. Samuel Leibowitz, a regular Clarence Darrow for the Scottsboro boys, of whom Haywood Patterson said “I love him more than life itself.”, comes off a touch melodramatic and insincere, limiting how much sympathy we have for his self-proclaimed commitment toward the end.
In the grand scheme of things however this may be regarded as semantics. The Scottsboro Boys is a riveting performance, full of laughs and entertainment which hits the bull’s-eye on social issues that are just as current in the present as they were in 1931.
In today’s paper there is a headline that a gay couple was thrown off the bus by the driver for kissing each other. Perhaps someone will buy the driver a ticket.
Runs until 21stFebruary 2015