The announcement that The Scottsboro Boys will close on December 16 after an all-too-short run is sad news for those who cherish theatre that makes you think. Without question, the theater experience that has stayed with me the most this season isThe Scottsboro Boys, — a combined effect of seeing the original production at The Vineyard last spring and the Broadway version at opening. This show has a unique effect that may account for its mixed (although generally positive) reception on all fronts. This musical makes you uncomfortable for liking it. For some, that actually protects them from liking it, i.e., they do not let Susan Stroman’s almost irresistible staging from affecting them. Had this show been about a sympathetic orphan child or an odd couple falling in love, Ms. Stroman’s ingenious collaboration with her designers and company would have evoked the upbeat and expansive feelings that musicals are supposed to evoke.
But this is a musical, in the style of a minstrel show (sometimes), about one of the most horrible and significant miscarriages of justice in the history of racial relations in this country. How do you respond to a catchy little ditty sung to a 13-year old boy as he is being forced to sleep next to the electric chair in which he has been sentenced to die? Then there is the PC-defying “Jew Money” song, on the surface a portrayal of the view of liberal northerners and the anti-Semitic stereo-types historically applied to them by southern bigots.
The Scottsboro Boys deals with a very complex set of events, historical moments, and people. There is much left out of the telling of this story and that is to be expected when history is crammed into a two-hour musical (e.g., the role of the NAACP, the politics of the American Communists who took up the boys’ cause, etc.). Kander and Ebbs’ score is typical of their work and that is meant as complement. They are very good at creating a musical theatre equivalent for a style of music (in this case, a number of styles) connected to their story’s location and characters, e.g., Cabaret and Chicago. While the music for The Scottsboro Boys is not as “catchy” or memorable as those shows’ offerings, it tells the story and provides a sort of on-going Brechtian commentary.
Ms. Stroman and writer David Thompson move in and out of the Minstrel show format over the course of the action – the extended prison scenes do not have “the boys” waiving tambourines. But the portrayal of the white people throughout is cartoon-like and exaggerated, particularly as Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones play them. As the show progresses, there is an underlying tension created by the minstrel show convention: BLACK FACE. Somehow, as an audience member, I knew that this production could not maintain its integrity without confronting the issue of black face. What is more central to the minstrel show than this signature confounding mockery of identities?
A few years back, I saw the first West Coast production of George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum.” It’s a masterful collection of sketches that satirize a broad spectrum of racial and cultural issues told from the point of view of African Americans – the Mama-on-the-Couch plays, the preparation for a flight on a 747 slave ship airplane. During the first 30 minutes of this unnerving “dark” humor, I was extremely uncomfortable laughing at these very funny sketches– “now raise your seats to the upright position and secure your shackles,” says the stewardess. Sitting in the safety of Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum, I found myself looking around for how the all-too-few Black audience members were responding. I felt like I needed to get their permission to laugh.
That experience certainly explains the dilemma Broadway audiences face with The Scosttsboro Boys. “Am I allowed to enjoy this?” And worse, “Oops, I seem to be enjoying this.” [spoiler warning] After the show finishes telling its story — and it does not have a happy or even a satisfying ending (it is, after all, a show about injustice) comes the dreaded moment. The nine Scotsboro Boys and, as the audience knows only too well, the nine African-American actors portraying the Scottsboro Boys, come on stage in black face – making a mockery of mockery. It is the closing salvo of an evening that has completely turned the tables on the conventions of the musical theatre – never fully enfranchising the audience’s participation in the usual pleasures of the form.
The audience members know they cannot join in on that mockery? They can only sit there slapped-in-the-face by the audacity of the show’s mixture of boffo Broadway bravura and excruciating social commentary. As I said, this show has a unique effect – it makes you uncomfortable for liking it.