The Scottsboro Boys

20863574_10155638855594464_1555720063175253618_oAs we began to write The Scottsboro Boys, it was immediately apparent why it was so important to tell their story.  Behind the headlines, the spectacle, the ongoing trials, the histrionics of politicians and lawyers was the story of nine young African American boys, determined to prove that they mattered…

–Composer, John Kander

Black lives matter.  Let’s consider also that the immensity of any individual life has to be looked at directly to show how and why—to enable a life to sing.  Pittsburgh Playhouse’s production of The Scottsboro Boys traps you into looking with its first breath, it opens on the silent chorus: an African-American woman, beginning to hyperventilate.

From the start, this is a violent twist of emotions.  It rings with the insanity of a culture whose proud integrity has been entirely and hypocritically forsaken.  It brings us to face nine individuals who are smacked suddenly with the fake virtue of a fiction called Justice and the humor of nonsense as horror.

The bitter irony of displaying this trial as a minstrel mimics the level of absurdity existent in Alabama’s justice system in 1931—Everything is a righteous farce.  Everybody is a clown.

Ivy Fox as The lady
Ivy Fox as The lady

We get to see this reflected in the eyes of that silent muse; the one woman chorus, Ivy Fox’s Lady.  Her silent acting does something for this show that manages it, conducts it.  It’s a powerful and strange tool, to have an emoting chorus who says almost nothing and yet says absolutely everything with her emanating presence.

Welcome to this world, a psychotic other dimension led by superstar showmen Billy Mason and Jr Whittington as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  These hosts are exceptionally powerful guides through the odyssey.  They fill ironic roles: the minstrelsy, fools.  Mason’s side-eye as he performs the tasks of Sheriff WhiteMan or Whittington’s haphazardness in his role as lawyer Johnny Walker; they are a strew of characters, diving into a critically injured American psyche that is in denial until satire can see it.  And they both lead sensationally.

Susan Stroman, the original Director and choreographer, remarks,

Typically minstrelsy uses white actors to portray African Americans in ways that are negative and disrespectful.  But we asked ourselves, ‘What if it were a group of African Americans playing white people?’  It would allow these nine actors to play white women, white prison guards, white sheriffs, white judges: it would allow them to play parts they would otherwise never play.

21457457_10155695876934464_8669559662130794580_oThis power gives credence to a performance like Joseph Fedore’s Eugene Williams, a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to death for a crime he doesn’t even understand; tap dancing a song about the electric chair as he suffers the terror of having persistent nightmares about it.  The twisted and beautiful take on a holocaust moment where a terrified teenage boy and two corpses (Steven Etienne and Scott Kelly) can suddenly breakout into truly whimsical movement reflects a splendid, musical softness within such a deep, destitute lostness:

Hey little boy

look over there

that’s what they call

an eleca-tric chair

Or perhaps the same minstrelsy is reflected in performances like Jared Smith and Lamont Walker II’s as two Alabama ladies who accuse the Scottsboro Nine of a false rape.  So there are two of the Scottsboro Nine, then also playing their villainous false victims: what a quandary.  This preys upon the mercy for rape victims and satisfies the salvation of one at the expense of the many others who, with this false testimony, did not matter.  How to perform this on stage and yet still execute the joke of the substance, the sickness?

It’s done camp, with panache and with diva flare.  Charles Weems plays the hoot of his Victoria Price, the hammed up damsel in distress, playing on the rich cream of a woman’s successful acting causing nine men to be imprisoned and tortured for nothing.  The haunt of her success story is the catastrophe of these innocent men.  Or Walker II’s Ruby Bates, who within her song “Never Too Late” attempts to retract her testimony only to be met with a justice system who refuses her repentance.  Oh, how Lamont Walker II plays this woman up!  He brings her fully fledged, over-the-top to a place which takes the drag of it to a new level: he divas this woman, this false, redemptive victim into her breach into the mythology of the story: women are victims too.  It’s society that’s not real, that allows for this breach of trust.  And it’s a sorrowful farce, that rape culture can immediate the dramatic purging of nine black men, but the reality is we live in a cruel world with no clear answers and no promise of true justice.  So what do you do?  You sing.

21367051_10155695876799464_1080342176479291535_oThe entire ensemble carries so much precision and talent.  This show truly empowers in a creepy, disturbing way.  It irks to the point of inspiration.  It compels by getting under your skin.  Director and Choreographer Tomé Cousin leaves not a second of this two-hour show untapped for its active involvement with the audience.  It is so well-played, well-cast and harrowing.

I give special credence to Lighting Designer Andrew David Ostrowski whose seamless touchings of the characters provides a wealth of world within the limited stage frame.  The set was absolutely stunning within its minimal capacity, in that with almost nothing it does nothing but provide.  The brilliance of the chair set pieces, which construct and deconstruct so many levels of staging, show the capacity for a musical to be simple and so contained.  I loved those damn chairs.

This was an amazing, aggravating, horrifying and explosively powerful show.  I just wish it didn’t feel so relevant too.  I’ve never seen a tragedy so comedically charged, ironic and desperate; and so beautiful and horrifying as this.

The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland through September 24. For tickets and more information click here

Photos by John Altdorfer.

Point Park Gets to Work on Another Eight Shows at the Pittsburgh Playhouse

11391480_10153367774739464_1509896223937134191_nSummer may be ending, but things are about to heat up at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.

The home of Point Park University theatre— The REP Professional Theatre Company and the Conservatory Theatre Company—is about to welcome eight exciting new productions into its hallowed halls for its 2017-2018 season. Artistic Director Ron Lindblom confirms that the amount of enjoyment the audience receives from the high-quality productions is equal to the educational benefits that the student cast and crew members receive.

“The Conservatory is geared towards training young artists and these classics really give the students the opportunity to get the training they need,” he said. It’s a win/win situation for anyone who steps foot in one of Point Park’s theatre spaces with the only variable being the shows in question that are chosen.

WebPosterBOYSKicking things off for Point Park’s season is a critically-acclaimed musical, authored by one of musical theatre’s most prolific and iconic writing teams. Making its Pittsburgh premiere, The Scottsboro Boys with music and lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb tells the dramatic true story of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of sexually assaulting two white women on a train riding through Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. The media circus and infamous series of trials that followed were plagued by extreme prejudice against the defendants and unfair judicial practices. If you’re expecting the fun conventions of musical theatre to make the dark subject matter more palatable, you’re out of luck here.

As they did with shows like Cabaret, Chicago, and Curtains, Kander and Ebb have brilliantly framed this tragic narrative in a distinct and unique theatrical style. Rather than using vaudeville or golden age musical comedy as its structure, The Scottsboro Boys is built as a minstrel show. In the early 19th century, these performances featured mostly white actors in blackface mocking African-Americans. In Kander and Ebb’s musical, originally directed on Broadway by Susan Stroman, the tropes of the minstrel show are employed to underline the countless injustices that ruined the lives of the titular characters. Lindblom laments that he finds “great relevance” for a story about black men being discriminated against in the legal system in the headlines of the modern world. Fortunately, this production is being helmed by Tomè Cousin whose frequent collaboration with Stroman makes him “perfect” director for this piece. The Scottsboro Boys plays at the Rauh Theatre from September 8-24.

Thankfully for patrons looking for musicals that provide some level of escapism, there are productions of Kiss Me, Kate and 42nd Street in the pipeline following The Scottsboro Boys.

WebPosterKATEBoth are “backstage musicals” that tell stories of two troubled theatre productions. Original Tony Award-winning Best Musical Kiss Me, Kate—featuring a classic score by Cole Porter and a book by Sam and Bella Spewack—introduces us to divorced couple Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi who are co-starring in a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Although it’s clear that love still lingers between them, they simply cannot stand each other. They’re surrounded by a host of wacky characters, including a pair of gangsters with a bone to pick with Fred, who prove against all comedic odds that the show must go on. Kiss Me, Kate runs at the Rockwell Theatre from October 20-29.

WebPoster42Wide-eyed ingenue Peggy Sawyer is the heroine of the tap-tastic musical 42nd Street. The only thing bigger than her dreams of stardom are the show’s numerous dance breaks supplied by Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s score. Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble’s book is the tale as old as time in show business of what happens when an inexperienced understudy takes over for a seasoned star. What happens is musical theatre magic that has been enchanting audiences since legendary director Gower Champion’s original 1980 Broadway production. 42nd Street also plays the Rockwell Theatre from March 16-25.

As usual, Point Park offers as much variety in genre, setting, and subject matter in their play selections for the season as they do in their musical selections. Whether contemporary or classic, the scripts illuminate points of views of a diverse group of characters.

WebPosterMOORSIn the case of Jaclyn Backhaus’ You on the Moors Now, playing at the Studio Theater from November 10-December 3, those characters are rather well known. Jane Eyre, Lizzy Bennet. Cathy Earnshaw, and Jo March are no longer just well-established fixtures of high school English class syllabi. Backhaus imagines the four 19th century literary leading ladies running away together and comparing notes on what their experiences in life have taught them. The women exist in a sort of timeless state where modern references and profanity are fair game for their epic girl talk session.

WebPosterALBAThe five women in Frederico Garcia Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba would most likely also benefit from a vacation from their dissatisfying lives. They are all sisters who spend their time dreaming of getting out of their mother’s house and truly experiencing life. Their routine is broken by the appearance of town hunk Pepe el Romano and his flirtation with the family’s eldest sister. Desire under the Bernarda Alba’s roof proves to be a dangerous thing that sets the stage for a frank look at the ways in which members of the opposite sex relate. The House of Bernarda Alba plays at the Rauh Theater from February 23-March 11.

WebPosterDEVILRussian literature served as the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s black comedy A Devil Inside. This gory romp sees Gene receiving far more than just cake on his 21st birthday. His mother finally reveals the truth behind his father’s death—he was murdered!—and insists that it is Gene’s duty to avenge him. He’s simultaneously disturbed by the request and distracted by his infatuation with Caitlin, who lusts after her Russian literature professor who lusts after the blood of his nemesis. For the non-squeamish, A Devil Inside runs at the Studio Theater from February 2-18.

The final two shows are either adaptations or translations of well-known works and living, breathing proof that theatre is an ageless, universal language.

WebPosterMAGIThe Gift of the Magi, adapted by Jon Jory, opens at the Rauh Theatre just in time for the holiday season. From December 8-17, you can learn the valuable lesson at the center of the story of Della and Jim Young. They are a young couple struggling to make end’s meet, but who are still determined to make Christmas special for one another by purchasing the perfect gifts. As with most stories set around that time of year, the true meaning of the season is explored to touching effect.

WebPosterVANYALast but not least is Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya playing from April 6-15 at the Rauh Theater. It’s an example of one of Chekhov’s estate dramas that features as much unrequited love as you can fit on a single stage. The enchanting Yelena is the object of two men’s affections. Unfortunately, they are crippled by profound existential crises exacerbated by the facts that she’s married and the estate, on which Vanya, one of the men, lives, is about to be sold. It’s all in a day’s work for a Chekhov character.

Along with The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss Me, Kate, and A Devil Inside, one performance of Uncle Vanya will be followed by a lecture in a completely new series called Freud on Forbes. Representatives from the Pittsburgh Psychoanalytic Center will take audience members into the writers’ brains armed only with the text of the script. These talks are sure to take your post-show conversations with friends to the next level. And that’s fitting because Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse 2017-2018 season of shows seeks to do the same thing for theatre.

For tickets and more information on the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s upcoming season, click here.