The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick
In Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931, nine black boys were tried for the alleged rape of two white girls. They were sentenced to death by electric chair. Even when one of the supposed victims came forward and confessed that her accusation was false, the retrial verdict was guilty, and a circus driven by bigotry ensued.
A musical seems, at first, a strange and irreverent medium through which to tell this tragic true story. In fact, it makes sense. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical presents the boys’ plight with all the farce and ridiculousness it entailed and runs it to the extreme. Rather than focus on the sadness of the tale (which is a given), the show seeks to highlight the absurdity of a justice system that repeatedly and stubbornly turns a blind eye to the suffering of nine innocents. Even the stage, with its giant, proscenium arch picture frames, puns the way the boys have been monumentally framed.
The Scottsboro Boys is bookended with the almost all-black cast seated in a semi-circle with the one white MC at the centre and two flamboyantly clad clowns on either end. This was the traditional set-up for the minstrel shows, in which white men derogatorily blacked up to entertain an audience. Here the concept is deconstructed, with the black actors playing all the white men and white women in the story and finally performing a number while blacked up and dressed in identical minstrel costumes.
An anonymous, silent woman hovers watchfully from the edge of each scene. Is she the mother of each of the boys? Is she one of the many black women whose plight will be eased following the spark of change that the case of the Scottsboro boys ignited?
Every single member of the cast brings his or her own spirit and wins the audience over with high energy and dollops of humour. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon are a riot as the two clowns who don the parts of several white caricatures. Dex Lee and James T Lane step out of their cell to play the two accusers, to hilarious effect. Every character is bold, polished and unforgettable.
Wonderful, orchestra-led songs – some soulful spirituals, others bright foot-tappers – and exciting choreography round this show off as a magnificent and moving piece of theatre.
Photo: Johan Persson
The Scottsboro Boys is on at Garrick Theatre until 21st February 2015, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for The Scottsboro Boys here: