The Scottsboro Boys
There are inspiring stories that come from the civil rights movement of the mid-20th Century; tales of struggle, determination, failure, and triumph. And then there’s "The Scottsboro Boys."
Beginning in the early spring of 1931, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s controversial musical "The Scottsboro Boys" tells the true story of nine African-American men who leave home in search of work. Riding a boxcar through Alabama, on their way to Memphis, a fight breaks out and they are falsely accused by the local authorities of raping two white women.
The nine men go on trial and are found guilty in only a few days’ time. Sentenced to die, the appeals process begins and takes them through several more trials, recanted eyewitness testimony, seven more guilty convictions and, finally, release or parole for eight of the nine. The last Scottsboro Boy escapes prison in 1948, 17 years after his initial arrest.
Fueled by racism and a governmental structure that refused to admit they had done wrong, the story of the Scottsboro Boys inspired protests by hundreds of thousands of people across more than 100 cities and was a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Now the Broadway musical steams onto the San Diego stage at The Old Globe. Guided by multi Tony Award-winning director Susan Stroman, this production reunites some cast members from the original Broadway and Philadelphia companies.
"The Scottsboro Boys" is staged in a minstrel style show, popular from the pre-Civil War era through the mid-20th Century. It opens with the cast parading through town, or in this case the audience, inviting the crowd to join and watch the show. The stories shared are often grandiose and campy riddled with racist stereotypes, generalizations, and a circus-like atmosphere. This show did not disappoint.
Clifton Duncan plays Haywood Patterson, the eventual, unelected leader of the group of nine and the man imprisoned the longest before his escape in 1948. An illiterate before his capture, Patterson learned to read in prison and eventually was able to write about his experiences in the Alabama jail that was published in 1950.
Duncan maintained a stoic sense about him, almost a fatherly feel, throughout the well-choreographed numbers. His stage presence helped keep the story, as well as the audience, grounded and aware of the desperate situation in which these men found themselves.
The surprise of the show was a very young Nile Bullock, portraying 13-year-old Eugene Williams, the youngest of the Scottsboro Boys. With a pronounced voice, well heard through the strong chorales that permeated the show and a mature and powerful sound at such a young age, a talent like this is something not often found on stage and added to the awe-inspired performance of a very talented ensemble.
Beowulf Borritt’s minimalist stage allowed the characters to create a scene and provides enough structure for the audience to really see it. Toni-Leslie James’ costumes were colorful, elaborate, and still managed to allow for the quick change this show required. Powerful and story telling in itself, Ken Billington provided some of the best lighting design I have seen at the Old Globe this season.
The only detraction to the show, one that was trying to portray history through a media form common at the time, was some of the liberties that were taken with the true history, and aftermath, of the real Scottsboro Boys. The show ends with a tie-in to a new generation of leaders in the civil rights movement, one that caught the audience off guard and left them in a long blackout searching their pockets for a tissue.
Fun, relevant, and emotionally charged, "The Scottsboro Boys" is a reminder of a road once traveled and, thankfully, left behind. There is much more comedy in this show than drama, laughs are around every corner, but as the show progresses the comedy begins to grind and it is only in the last moments of the play one realizes that "The Scottsboro Boys", though entertaining, is no cakewalk.
"The Scottsboro Boys" runs through June 10 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage at The Old Globe, Balboa Park in San Diego. For info or tickets call 619-23-GLOBE or visit www.TheOldGlobe.org