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04 December 2010 @ 06:59 pm
The Scottsboro Boys  
Since I was up in New York last weekend, I abandoned my mother for a few hours and went to the theatre. I had intended to have a pre-matinee lunch at Eataly but long lines made that infeasible. But, just up the street (on 23rd), there is a Chock Full of Nuts coffeeshop! Chock Full of Nuts was a significant part of my adolescence. My friend, Debby, and I always had cream cheese sandwiches on date nut bread there when we went into the city to go to the theatre. I am pleased to say that combination is just as good as I remembered.

Anyway, had chosen The Scottsboro Boys for my Saturday matinee because with a score by Kander and Ebb and with John Cullum in the cast, how could I not? (Even my mother understood that part. I would pay to watch John Cullum open a supermarket.) The premise is an unusual and controversial one for a musical. It is, essentially, a retelling about a particularly ugly miscarriage of justice in the South of the 1930's, in which 9 black teenagers were hauled off a freight car and accused of raping 2 white women. (It is very clear in the show that they were innocent. The implication is that one of the women made up the rape story because she didn't want to go to jail for hopping a freight. The other woman went along, though she later recanted.) There were a large number of trials and the boys were repeatedly found guilty.

What makes the show controversial is that it is presented in the form of a minstrel show. There is a bit of a turnaround as Cullum (playing the Interlocutor) is the only white cast member, so we have black people playing white characters, instead of white people in black face. (The Interlocutor was sort of the boss in a minstrel show, assisted by his sidemen, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.) Still, it is uncomfortable to watch, say, a lively production number about the electric chair. There are other deliberate attempts to be shocking. For example, a song called "Financial Advice" accuses the women who recanted of having done so because she took "Jew money" from lawyer, Samuel Lebowitz. Fortunately, the whole thing gets turned around in the end, as the boys reject the minstrelsy and refuse to do the Interlocutor's bidding when he asks for a final cakewalk. And there is a very powerful scene at the end, involving The Lady, who moves through the action without speaking until those final moments.

In some ways, this reminds me of Sondheim's Assassins, though the music (while good) is not quite as brilliant. If you can get past the disturbing concept, it's a provocative piece. (Note that it is, apparently, closing on December 12th. I suspect that it will have some life at some of the more provocative regional theatres, however.)

I should also mention the performances. I am, as noted above, biased about John Cullum, so there is not a lot of point in my mentioning how good he is. The other outstanding performances were by Joshua Henry as Heywood Patterson, who refused to lie and confess so ended up dying of cancer after 21 years in prison, and by Jeremy Gumbs as Eugene Williams, the youngest of the boys. I'll also mention that the choreography was particularly impressive and the show was enhanced by the simplicity of the set.