Sometimes it’s good to see aspects of popular culture surviving throughout the generations; in other cases, it’s more reassuring to see a dated artform fall from its conceited grace and out of our vocab. For every person who has to look up what an interlocutor is in the context of a minstrel show, we can thank our lucky stars and stripes that some of the conventions of minstrelsy are banished to decades gone by. That said, in the 12-times Tony-nominated The Scottsboro Boys, the musical theatre dream team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) has thoughtfully engaged with the tasteless form for just long enough to reiterate how dangerous entertainment based on racial stereotypes can be, and to provide an opposing narrative that exposes and corrects the flaws of its predecessor.
Based on the real life tribulations of the nine young black men who were wrongly accused of rape back in 1931, this musical picks up on a very familiar narrative thread, and comparisons with classical Southern texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird quickly spring to mind. But while this critical portrayal of the American South in the first half of the twentieth century is hardly unprecedented, Kander and Ebb’s piece matters because it puts the defendants back into their rightful place, at the centre of their own story. By contorting the conventions found in minstrelsy, the brains behind this musical have generated a novel presentation of the drawn-out events that happened within Southern courthouses during the Scottsboro trials and appeals. They also expose culture’s cell bars, the leisurely cycles of prejudice and undermining that frivolously contained these nine men within such a disturbing miscarriage of justice. As humour and inhumanity collide, we’re constantly told to evaluate what passes as comfortable entertainment.
Played by the only white actor in the cast, Julian Glover’s Interlocutor begins the piece by calling upon his troupe to retell the story of the Scottsboro Boys. Surrounded by high-kicking feet and exaggerated smiles, the convicted 18-year-old labourer Haywood Patterson (an unceasingly captivating Kyle Scatliffe) insists that “we tell it like it really happened”. His statement bears an ironic, sobering weight; taking a form famed for its inaccurate, biased portrayals as a starting point, this heavily stylised interpretation provides a convex account to face the hollowed-out old tale of the foolish black minstrel. There’s a levelling kind of bias at play here; under Susan Stroman’s multi-layered direction, the exaggerated mimicry of the bow-legged white sheriff certainly doesn’t scream “realistic portrayal”, but this artfully flawed caricature holds up a mirror that puts the fallacies of the source style to trial. The real story is not alive in this musical alone but, cleverly, in the dialogue it forms with the minstrel shows of old.
Since its premiere Off-Broadway, The Scottsboro Boys has carried its deceptively low-fi production values and lavishly-applied thriftiness to select locations across the USA. Imitating the style of conventional minstrel shows, the company has energetically bounced on makeshift trains made out of chairs, wooden planks and tambourine wheels on stages in close proximity to the USA’s most liberal stations. In Minneapolis the young men tap danced around electric chairs, clashing history’s trivialising portrayal of black characters with the reality of this disturbingly punitive chapter in America’s past. Modern audiences in liberal San Francisco haven’t missed the production’s life-sized shadow-puppet show, the clear imaginative highlight of a musical that preaches the virtue of honesty with a home-spun charm.
Back in NYC, the boys hit a larger, Broadway stage to meet with their compassionate Jewish lawyer. Leibowitz is the New Yorker with the curious accent who had to be brought in when nobody south of Knoxville was enthusiastic about or capable of defending nine black men. The pattern is clear to see: Kander and Ebb’s work may be about the American South, but the horizontal line that bisects the country is evident both in this musical’s content and in its tour locations. It’s an accomplished piece but, geographically, it may just have a long way to go.
The Scottsboro Boys is playing at The Young Vic until 21 Dec.
Review first published by A Younger Theatre