The review headline of The Amsterdam News, a prominent New York newspaper with a predominately African American readership declared “The Scottsboro Boys a Blight on Broadway.” Critic Linda Armstrong used the words “unamused” and “offended” to describe her feelings sitting in the theatre.
The Scottsboro Boys has an impressive pedigree of Broadway talent associated with it. The music and lyrics are by John Kander and Fred Ebb (who passed away in 2004), the same team that brought us Cabaret and Chicago. Their score is tuneful and lilting utilizing the ragtime style of the period. The book is by David Thompson. Director Susan Stroman, a Tony Award winner for The Producers, has assembled a talented cast led by Broadway legend John Cullum as the Interlocutor, also a Tony Award winner for Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century. Ms. Stroman has crafted a sleek and stylish production on set designer Bewulf Boritt’s minimalist set. Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo portray Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones respectively. They also play a cornucopia of cartoonish characters from a crazy white sheriff, a Jewish New York lawyer, jail guards and more with great agility. Perhaps the most fleshed out character is Haywood Patterson, played with righteous indignation and solemnity by Joshua Henry. He sings the haunting “Go Back Home,” the one song in the show that seems to step away from the highly styled minstrel show and into an honest, emotional moment.
My issue is not that I found The Scottsboro Boys offensive, it’s that I found the minstrel show, or at least it’s realization here, unmoving and occasionally tedious. I understand why the authors thought this was a good idea. The idea of the tool used to keep the oppressed “in their place” being used as a tool for their own insurrection and triumph is a powerful one. My issue is, much like Moralis in A Chorus Line, I felt nothing. I didn’t find the piece moving. I found it fairly entertaining but am not sure in hindsight that I would recommend this combination of topic and theatrical device.
I do have one question for Ms. Armstrong from the Amsterdam News, would she have objected so strenuously to the production if it had been written and directed by an African American team? Keep in mind, one school of thought holds that Stepin Fetchit was actually subversive. This may sound naive but I find it hard to believe that the esteemed team of Kander and Ebb would have written this piece if their intentions weren’t pure.