Is 82 years too soon to make a musical out of a true story of rampant racism, the worst depression the United States ever experienced and the flamboyant injustices of the legal system?
But in “The Scottsboro Boys” the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the book by David Thompson and the direction and choreography of Susan Stroman make for a shocking and engrossing tale that is brilliant in its conception, its staging and its performance.
“The Scottsboro Boys” follows the paths of nine young men, ages 13 to 19 and complete strangers to each other (except for two who are brothers), who are riding a boxcar to a disparate group of southern towns looking for work.
Pulled off the train by policemen in Scottsboro, Ala., they are accused of having raped two white women on the train and are summarily sentenced to die in the electric chair. But due to a series of blunders by judges and lawyers, they wind up being tried eight times — all culminating in a repeated guilty verdict.
It’s a documented tragedy and travesty, but that’s only half the play’s message. A parallel story is presented as a minstrel show, with the “boys” singing, tap-dancing, somersaulting, and generally playing the stereotypical buffoons, and participating in mostly unfunny one-liners of the “Amos ‘n Andy” variety. It’s humiliating and offensive, but the cast makes it less so by their very exuberance and, dare we say it, class.
It is also a special treat to see Hal Linden, that old song and dance man, strutting, arms akimbo, as the minstrel show’s interlocutor and urging the players to cakewalk, which is how traditional minstrel shows used to finish up.
In the Performances magazine of the Ahmanson Theatre Los Angeles journalist Lynell George explains, “As the creative team envisioned it, the staged Scottsboro saga wasn’t imagined as typical jukebox musical fare … its complex arc requires a different level of thoughtfulness and consideration.”
“That discomfort is precisely what Kander and Ebb were after,” George continues. “A discomfort with how easy it was, and too often is … to manipulate a lie into a semblance of truth — a masquerade or burlesque. How was it possible that a group of innocent boys could be destroyed by a single lie?”
And John Kander adds, “Why was it easier to believe that lie than it was to accept the truth?”
Oh, and about that 82 years I mentioned earlier. The arrest of the Scottsboro boys took place in March, 1931. The last of the boys died in 1989. And the governor of Alabama graciously and officially “pardoned” them all in April 2013.
“The Scottsboro Boys” opened on May 29 and will continue at the Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles through June 30.
Tickets range from $20 to $115 and can be reserved by calling (213) 972-4400.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.