It’s racist, tasteless, clever and barbed. A black-and-white musical minstrel show comes to London.
“The Scottsboro Boys” by Kander and Ebb (“Chicago,” “Cabaret”) uses ironic minstrel-show troupes, 1920s vaudeville songs and burlesque routines to tell the story of a real-life miscarriage of justice against nine black men.
The sting in Susan Stroman’s production is the all-male black cast “white-up” to play sadistic sheriffs, idiot judges, and trashy white women. The one white performer (Julian Glover) is a patronizing master of ceremonies who tries to keep control.
In 1931 nine men were accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. One of the women later admitted that both she and her friend had lied. Through hasty trials, re-trials and appeals, the defendants were still continually found guilty.
Kander and Ebb present the story of the accused men and their experience of a flawed legal system. There’s a disturbingly merry tap number about execution by electric chair.
A lilting close-harmony plantation song called “Southern Days” turns into a quietly seditious anthem for justice.
The trial featured Brooklyn-born defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (played by Forrest McClendon).
“Is justice in this case going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?” asked the assistant lawyer.
This exchange is transformed into a cheerful anti-Semitic routine called “Financial Advice.”
Stroman’s production, first seen in New York in 2010, goes at a great lick. A receding series of skewed proscenium arches create a warped theatrical environment. The various locations are made from chairs which are heaped up to become the bars of a jail, or spread in a row to become a train. The staging moves quickly, and keeps the bitter racist pills well sugared.
Perhaps a touch less sugar might have helped. The show gets more preachy and worthy as it goes on, and the running time of one hour 50 minutes, with no interval, could be snipped.
A scene in which one of the accused tries to turn informer on the others isn’t developed, and in consequence the Scottsboro boys come to seem more and more homogenized and victim-like.
Kander and Ebb’s trick in “Chicago” was to make the audience care about a couple of selfish killers. Here you know what you’re supposed to feel about these incarcerated martyrs from the get-go. It doesn’t help propel the drama.
That’s no fault of the superb ensemble. Kyle Scatliffe plays the prisoner Haywood Patterson (who later wrote a book about the case) with dignity. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are sparky as two clowns who take on multiple roles.
The strengths well outweigh the flaws, and make a provocative, entertaining show. Rating: ****.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is at the Young Vic. Information: http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2922
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(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)