The Scottsboro Boys

Haywood Patterson (Clifton Duncan, center) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys, at the American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

So what do you do if you have a very dark, awful, sad, sorry story to tell but you want people to hear it?  You know they won’t come to the theater to be made unhappy, you have to make the show interesting, funny, amusing, intriguing and, if possible, uplifiting.  That the problem Kander and Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) had in bringing the story of the Scottsboro Boys to the stage.  How they solved the problem is on view in San Francisco until next Saturday.

The Scottsboro boys were a group of 9 very young black kids, 13 to 19 years old, who were riding a freight train through Scottsboro Alabama when they were caught by the police.  At the same time, the police caught two young white women, 21 year old Victoria and 17 year old Ruby.  The girls decided to get out of trouble by claiming that they had been raped by the 9 boys.  This being the South, in 1931, the boys were in seriously deep trouble.

The Governor, who called in the National Guard to prevent a lynching, agreed to hold a speedy trial.  The Boys were found guilty in a flash.  Fortunately, the International Labor Defense, a arm of the Communist Party, took up their case.  An appeal to the Supreme Court overturned the verdict because blacks were systematically excluded from the jury.

Over the next decade, there were 7 more trials.  The younger of the women, Ruby Bates, recanted her testimony, but that had no effect on the outcome–the boys were convicted 7 more times.  Eventually, 4 were released in 1937, three were paroled in the mid forties, one escaped and one died in prison.  The Boys were represented by Sam Leibowitz, a famous New York lawyer who went on to become a famous judge.

So that’s the long, sad story in a nutshell.  Many of the journalists on scene described the multiple trials described the proceedings as a minstrel show, so that’s how Kander and Ebb decided to cast the play.  It opens with the classic characters, the Interlocutor (played by Hal Linden, who I didn’t even recognize), Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  The set is mostly comprised of some metal chairs that can be put together in various ways to create furniture, a train, a jail cell, etc.

The nine men who play the Boys also play other parts–especially, and riotously, the two accusers.  Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo play everyone else, and there is one black woman who is often on stage but has no lines who represents, I guess, the entire black race.

It’s a musical, of course.  Everyone sings, everyone dances. There are old, tired jokes.  There is pathos. There is bathos.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.  Well, maybe not cry–the authors manage to just take the worst edge off the hideous things that happen, pulling back just a bit to keep the audience from getting too emotional.  That may or may not be the best theatrical choice, but it’s the one they made.

The acting and singing and dancing are all excellent. Jared Joseph as Mr. Bones and JC Montgomery as Mr. Tambo do all the heavy lifting of moving the show along.  Clifton Duncan, as prisoner Haywood Patterson (who eventually escaped prison and wrote a book about the story) is the emotional core of the show.

Yes, the show ends on an uplifting note–but I can’t tell you how.  You’ll just have to go see it.  It’s worth your time.

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9 thoughts on “The Scottsboro Boys

  1. While researching the history of the Scottsboro boys, Kander came across an article from the 1930s calling one of the trials a “minstrel show” because of all the courtroom shenanigans underway. Kander, by phone from New York, says a light bulb went off.

  2. While researching the history of the Scottsboro boys, Kander came across an article from the 1930s calling one of the trials a “minstrel show” because of all the courtroom shenanigans underway. Kander, by phone from New York, says a light bulb went off.

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