By Karen Isaacs
The case known as The Scottsboro Boys was a terrible miscarriage of justice that reflected our nation’s racial prejudices. In 1931, nine black boys – most under 17 and most strangers to each other – hopped a freight train to head to Atlanta to look for work or connect with family. In Scottsboro, Alabama, two white women (prostitutes) accused them of rape and the nightmare for the boys began. Though it became a cause célèbre for northern liberals, the boys were found guilty in multiple trials. While some were released and others paroled, the end was tragic for each of them.
Hardly what you might expect of a musical.
But the genius of Kander & Ebb – who saw that using a seedy and decaying Berlin cabaret could be the frame of the story of Nazism and its rise in Cabaret or that vaudeville could help tell the story of two attractive young murderesses in Chicago – relaized that they could tell the story of the Scottsboro boys using one of the most racially insensitive entertainment forms: the minstrel show with its stereotypes.
The resulting show, The Scottsboro Boys is now getting a terrific production at Playhouse on Park through Aug. 4. Previously the show won acclaim, nominations and awards off-Broadway, on Broadway, in London and other places.
Admittedly, the story isn’t pleasant for American’s to see; Cabaret was set in Berlin, Chicago is about manipulating in the justice system, and their third political musical The Kiss of the Spider Woman is set in South America.
This was one of a number of blots on the American story, along with lynchings, slavery, segregation, Japanese internment camps during WWII and more.
These boys were prosecuted and destroyed because of the color of their skin.
The show opens with a typical minstrel show opening: the white interlocutor and his two side men: Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo in exaggerated costumes perform the opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” joined by the remaining company.
But when the interlocutor (Dennis Holland, the only white cast member) says they will perform the story of the Scottsboro Boys, the rest insist that this time “they tell the truth”.
They takes us back to the beginning of the story: the boys on the train and the initial encounter with the sheriff and the two women accusing them.
Ivory McKay(who plays Mr. Bones) and Torrey Linder (Mr. Tambo) become many of the characters in the show – the sheriff and deputy, the first inept lawyer, the guards, the Alabama attorney general, and the New York Jewish lawyer who is sent to defend them in some of the subsequent trials. Other cast members play the two “rape” victims and other characters. All of the cast does an excellent job.
If McKay and Linder highlight the stereotypes in these white characters, including the prejudice against New Yorkers and Jews, the heart of the show is Tray Valjean Rucker as Haywood Patterson. Patterson was one of the older boys and one who becomes both a leader and a rebel. He tries to escape multiple times. Rucker gives Haywood quiet dignity and with his strong voice puts over some of the moving songs in the show including “Nothin’,” “Make Friends with the Truth,” and “You Can’t Do Me.”
But the other “boys” are also excellent. I’d single out Jaylan Evans who plays Ruby Bates and Grant Reynolds as the “victims,” and Justin Sturges as Billy as well as Trishawn Paul as Little George.
Dennis Holland as the interlocutor plays the judge and the Governor of Alabama. The performers are backed up by a fine eight piece ensemble.
David Lewisi uses ordinary chairs to create the train, the cells and more on the sparse set.
High praise must be given to director Sean Harris for undertaking this piece and giving it a fine production as well as choreographer Darlene Zoller and music director Melanie Guerin.
The show is done without an intermission and runs about two hours. Yet an intermission would have allowed the audience to break the mood and to escape the reality of the piece. We need to feel as trapped as the boys.
Please, go see The Scottsboro Boys at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Rd., West Hartford and bring your teenagers. They need to see this. For tickets visit Playhouse on Park.. The theater is doing a “talk back” after every performance with a variety of prominent guests.