Review: The Scottsboro Boys
The creators of The Scottsboro Boys are out to make audiences squirm in their seats with discomfort. This new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb tells the true story of nine black men who were wrongfully accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931 and put through hell in jail before being released years later. What puts audiences of Scottsboro into such discomfort are the grim historical facts and the jolting manner in which the story is told—a painfully wide-grinned minstrel show. This daring method of storytelling should be no surprise, as Kander and Ebb famously highlighted American judicial failure in the musical classic Chicago with tongue-in-cheeked razzle dazzle.
Along with book writer David Thompson, Kander and Ebb (the latter died in 2004) use the creepy, controversial minstrel method to juxtapose the injustice that is done to the nine innocent men and highlight the atrocious crimes of racism. Broadway legend John Cullum plays the minstrel staple of Interlocutor, who orders up the cast to tell a story. Coleman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, two other minstrel fixtures that rotate tirelessly through numerous roles. Domingo, as deranged as ever, is chilling as he brutalizes and tortures the Scottsboro Boys with insane evil as a sheriff, lawyer, and prison guard.
It’s a wonder that Domingo is able to sustain his heightened level of cartoon maniac throughout the show, yet the same can be said for the rest of the cast and the heavy subject matter. In the bluntly-titled number “Electric Chair,” Guard Bones and Guard Tambo terrify the youngest member of the Scottsboro Boys—Eugene, a little boy—with the possible fate of electrocution. The guards perform the number with sadistic pleasure, and it’s jolting to think that Jeremy Gumbs, the young actor who plays Eugene, is involved with such a dark show at his young age.
Gumbs gives a terrific performance, as do all in this cast of relative newcomers. Christian Dante White and James T. Lane, in addition to playing two of the Scottsboro Boys, double as the two white women the men are accused of raping. Their heightened portrayal of the characters is, again, a sustained wonder. The ensemble cast joins in beautiful vocal unity with Kander and Ebb’s score. The songs are kinetic and with melodies that never teeter on dull.
The standout performance comes from Joshua Henry as Haywood, the leader of the Scottsboro Boys. Coming from In The Heights and a brief run in a featured role in American Idiot, Henry is an electrifying new stage presence with hope of great things to come in his career. Henry shows huge emotional range and conviction, as a man determined to tell the truth, even when lying could grant him freedom. In the song “Nothin’,” Henry switches with amazing ability from standard emotional song to archetypical minstrel performance. It’s a jolting rendition that shows Henry’s impressive range.
Susan Stroman has directed Scottsboro with precision and staged a show that thrives on bareness. With just three uneven prosceniums and a stack of silver-painted chairs, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has created a striking environment for the fantastic cast to inhabit. Stroman allows the talented cast to fill the stage, rather than scenery. Her choreography is a marvel to watch, especially when she has her actors performing it on chairs stacked to resemble a train.
Difficult as it may be to watch, The Scottsboro Boys is historical truth, and that is what the show’s creators are out to tell. This is not the feel-good musical of the year, but it might be the most meaningful.
The Scottsboro Boys student rush policy:
Up to two tickets may be purchased when the box office opens for $26.50 a piece.