The Scottsboro Boys
The latest Kander and Ebb musical examines racism in the Jim Crow South.
Mon Nov 1 2010
Photograph: Paul Kolnik
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
Here's the funny thing about blackface (the only funny thing): It doesn't conceal; it reveals. The antique act in which (mostly) white men use makeup to turn the face into a grimacing mask of obsidian skin and ovoid lips has nothing to say about African-Americans of the early 20th century. But the practice speaks volumes about the anxious desire to contain black subjectivity and autonomy.
Sound academic? It is, but the musical-theater team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with book writer David Thompson and veteran director Susan Stroman, have done their damnedest to turn abstract ideas of race and representation into Broadway material. The Scottsboro Boys is a heavily ironized retelling of the titular 1930s court case, in which nine youths were held for years in an Alabama prison on trumped-up charges of rape. In the tradition of Cabaret and Chicago, Kander and Ebb don't tell the story naturalistically; they frame it using period entertainment—in this case, a minstrel show, emceed by the kindly Southern gent Mr. Interlocutor (John Cullum). The rest of the cast is sullenly coerced into "performing" their blackness.
If Scottsboro doesn't achieve the tragic power or political urgency the subject deserves, it's due to Thompson's conceptual-straw-man book, which tries to subvert an already disgraced form while pandering to the audience's liberal complacencies and guilt. The score is rich with nostalgic melodies and stinging lyrics. And there's no shortage of red-hot acting talent: Joshua Henry's manly, conflicted turn as the truth-telling Haywood Patterson; Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon as antic zanies Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo; and tap-dancing young dynamo Jeremy Gumbs as a boy who grows up behind bars.
Perhaps with a more nuanced book and flexible frame, Scottsboro would have more punch. It's almost exactly the sort of show we need now. A whole resistance movement has grown in the past two years around no discernible cause other than horror at a black man in the White House. Can Tea Party protesters in blackface be far off?