As 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.
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.
This 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.
The 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.