The year is 1931. A group of nine exuberant young African American men come up the aisles and bound onto the stage. Chairs and a few boards represent the train they’re on, and the song they sing is full of the hope and adventure of riding the rails. This is the Depression, when many a youth left home in search of work, and because one less mouth to feed helped their families just scrape by.
When they cross from Tennessee into Alabama, all hell breaks loose. They are unjustly accused of raping two white women, and their lives are destroyed. They are thrown into jail, and the process of new trials and appeals takes nearly a decade.
How can this shameful and distressing history lesson be turned into a musical that both entertains and enlightens? Therein lies the genius of The Scottsboro Boys.
With the skillful guidance of director/choreographer Susan Stroman, the action moves along at a breakneck speed, pausing only for some beautiful Kander and Ebb music, and heartbreaking soliloquizes. The show runs close to two hours without an intermission; anything else would ruin the pace.
The Boys tell their own story, becoming progressively more enabled as the tale progresses.
At first, they seem to be simply standard issue minstrels, asking for permission to tell the truth.
In the process of moving the chairs to change the scenes, their power grows, and they take over the show. I don’t recall ever having had the privilege of seeing a finer ensemble on the stage. There is no weak link, no actor who isn’t flat out brilliant. The balance of this delicate cat’s cradle of performance rests with the individual talent of each performer meshing to support each other with precision and skill. This is a company that seems to have been working together forever. The fact that they play, with ease, multiple roles, including the Whites in the drama, only adds to the enjoyment of the evening.
In this abundance of solid gold performances, the work of Joshua Henry (above) as Haywood Patterson is platinum. He’s the leader of the group, the man who’s thrown into solitary, who stays in jail rather than recant and be pardoned. In this day and age, it’s hard for us to understand an individual who sticks to his principles, even if he knows it dooms him to a life behind bars.
Henry not only makes us believe, he lets us understand that for Patterson, there’s just no other choice. His voice is rich and powerful, he moves like a great cat, and he’s as handsome as he is talented. It has to be said: this actor is the young Sidney Poitier for whom so many have been waiting.
Just a note about one of my personal gripes. As splendid as Henry looks when he strips down on stage, one glance at his washboard abs takes us out of the 1930’s and into a modern gym.
Performers, please do the research that will show you how body types have changed through the decades, and if you can’t ditch the sixpack, at least get someone to show you how to make your buff belly less noticeable on stage. And no, guys who load freight or do other physical labor just don’t end up looking like that, honest.
Holding the event together as the minstrel show Interlocutor is Broadway legend John Cullum. I so hope these gifted young performers know that they’re in the presence of greatness. Gentleman, take every opportunity to learn from the best. Soak up the war stories of a life of theater and TV stardom. Watch, listen, and learn.
There are scenes that are very difficult to take, namely experiencing the cruelty inflicted on the youngest Boy. I know audience members have been offended by the portrayal of the Jewish lawyer, the blackface, the easy stereotypes. We here in New York pat ourselves on the back, and mutter about the South on the way out of the theater. But try to remember that there are still unpopular minorities among us, and give careful thought to the notion that they have every right to live their lives (and worship how and where they choose) without fear of harassment.
This production can stand on its own merits. If it were pure fiction, it would still be a great night at the theater. But to gage the significance of the Scottsboro Boys, read the insert in the program. There is A Lady who appears onstage throughout the play, bearing witness to the events that transpire. Who is she? You will know immediately when you see her iconic pose at the end of the show. It gave me goose bumps, and put everything into perspective. We are told that the Scottsboro Boys were soon forgotten. That’s no longer true; once you see this play, I think you will remember them for a long, long time. I know I will.
Photos by Paul Kolnik
The Scottsboro Boys
149 West 45th Street
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, International Association of Theatre Critics.