Can a minstrel show, however postmodern and refracted, hope to find the truth behind the railroading of nine innocent African-American teens? Probably not—but in The Scottsboro Boys, it can, and does, offer new insight into the tortuous trajectory of their all-too-numerous trials.
This unlikely musical, Kander and Ebb’s last, is based on the infamous case of the early 1930s, in which nine teenaged boys were unfortunate enough to be riding the rails when their train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama. Two stowaway prostitutes tried to deflect attention by accusing the young men of raping them, and the teens were locked up to be tried and retried repeatedly, dividing the country and providing fuel for self-righteous rage to both sides.
In Chicago, Kander and Ebb reveled in their murderous heroines’ guilt; here they use similarly Brechtian techniques, this time inflected through stage representation of African Americans, to explore the ways in which the innocent young men are denied justice. An Interlocutor (John Cullum), narrates the action, accompanied by the broadly comic commentary of Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon). And though waiting in the inside of an Alabama jail may seem like somber material for a full-on singing and dancing Susan Stroman extravaganza, the show has its fair share of show-stopping spectacles. Often, of course, these come with a twist, as in the disturbing “Electric Chair,” in which the youngest prisoner is forced to tap dance to avoid the chair. But there’s a point to the mix of surprising song-and-dance numbers, mournful ballads, and songs of protest. Through its inventive adaptation of familiar genres, the musical subtly shows the ways these prisoners try to work with and against the structures they’ve been given—musical and otherwise.
The richly talented ensemble does a superlative job of walking the fine line between supporting and subverting the various genres they’ve inherited. In particular, Brandon Victor Dixon stands out as Haywood Patterson, the show’s ultimate protagonist. But as we see the Scottsboro boys exploited by both sides—even their lawyer, himself a target of anti-Semitism—the dream of being true to yourself seems to grow more and more impossible, until the show’s climactic scenes.
It’s easy to see why Chicago has more immediate appeal. "The Scottsboro Boys" book, by David Thompson, isn’t as sharp, and its aim is more earnest as it unravels how justice went so awry for so long. Plus, perversely, Chicago starts with a more empowering premise. In that earlier, more sardonic show, image management was a highly lucrative and learnable art, while The Scottsboro Boys shows the ways in which people can be all-but-inextricably trapped by cultural concepts or prejudices. But while both shows deal with the manipulations of justice as spectacle, Scottsboro replaces the cynicism of Chicago with something that ultimately comes closer to optimism: the idea that change may come slowly, but it will come.