In the darkness of the theatre the sound of cars can be heard rumbling past. One light shines upon a woman, waiting, a box of cake in hand. As she puts her hand to her heart, the music begins.
‘The Scottsboro Boys’ charts the true story of the imprisonment of 9 innocent black men in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931, when two white women accuse them of rape on a train. Appeal after appeal fails, even when one of the women, Ruby, admits that their story was false. Those who are released, the younger four, turn to vaudeville and alcoholism. Hayward Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe), who refuses to plead guilty in order to get parole, clinging feverishly onto the truth, dies in prison after 21 years.
Though addressing such a serious issue, the musical is presented as a parody of the minstrel shows popular at the time, in which white actors would black up to play black men. Here the cast is made up almost entirely of black actors, other than the Interlocutor (Julian Glover), a sinister caricature of the white authority figure presiding over the show. The minstrel set-up is led by the comedy double act of Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon), who play everything from the complainants, to the guards, to the lawyers – all white figures of authority.
It is an extremely powerful piece. A 12 year old – who does not even know what rape is – tap dances around an electric chair as the guards do their best to scare him into constant nightmares. In solitary confinement, a fellow prisoner teaches Hayward to write his alphabet by how closely each letter resembles breasts. Another prisoner, played by James T. Lane, is shot in the head whilst trying to escape and survives, unspeaking, forever shaking.
The music, written by Kander and Ebb (best known for ‘Chicago’ and ‘Cabaret’) is brilliant. There are often jolly, up-beat numbers that end in jazz hands and seem wholly dissonant from what is being discussed. We are forced to look beyond the smiles, as the Interlocutor commands “sing it” and “smile”. You don’t go out singing it, but you certainly leave thinking about it.
It is not a comfortable theatrical experience, but it isn’t supposed to be. I leave feeling almost guilty that they were able to make me laugh, at times, about an event like this, guilty even that this injustice was allowed to happen. The Scottsboro boys have in fact only been officially pardoned by the state very recently. It is a provocative, uneasy experience, but one that I would highly recommend. Thought-provoking, absurd, truthful, all in one.
The final image sees the return of the woman we saw at the beginning. We realise now that she was waiting for a bus, on which she refuses to give up her seat for a white man.
‘The Scottsboro Boys’ is playing at the Garrick Theatre until February 21st
Photo Credit: Johan Persson