Dave and I saw The Scottsboro Boys at ACT last week, thanks to a discount offer on Goldstar. It’s Kander and Ebb’s last score, as Fred Ebb died before the show was finished.
The show is based on the case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers sentenced to death for raping two white women in Alabama in 1931, despite a conspicuous absense of evidence that any rape occurred at all, and the two women having rather obvious reasons to lie. The show uses the minstrel show as its central metaphor — in addition to the nine young men, there are a Mr. Bones and a Mr. Tambo, who play various parts, and an Interlocutor. (There’s also a black woman who watches the story silently — her purpose is a mystery for much of the show but becomes clear by the end; I’m not going to give it away.)
As I watched the show, though, it seemed to me that the use of such an emotionally charged metaphor was never really justified, even though it’s used in some inventive ways. There were moments when I thought the point was going to be that people on all sides looked at the case and saw whatever they wanted to see, in the same way that most blackface performers relied on the audience bringing in with them a willingness to see its simple preconceptions about blacks reinforced. But this idea was never really developed.
Besides which, the show itself, it seems to me, relies on a liberal audience bringing in a willingness to see its simple preconceptions about racial prejudice reinforced. The young men are guileless victims, the white Southerners are venal buffoons. This is fun for a while, but well before the end of the show I was wishing there were some three-dimensional characters somewhere. If this play were about an issue that we didn’t come into the theater already having strong emotions about, I don’t think we’d be stirred. The show paints everything in big, broad strokes and downplays or eliminates all sorts of inconvenient human complexities about the case that could get in the way of our seeing it in simple good-versus-evil terms.
Nothing is said, for example, of the fight that started the whole mess. Nothing is said of the fact that, during their trials, some of the young men were frightened into claiming under oath that they witnessed the alleged rape and accused others of having taken part in it.
It seems to me that the script verges on out-and-out dishonesty at the end, when we’re told that Haywood Patterson, one of the young men, died in jail, and the clear implication is that he was still serving his sentence for the nonexistent rape. In fact, Mr. Patterson managed to escape after 18 years in jail, and he fled north to Detroit, where he lived in secret for three years until the FBI arrested him; the governor of Michigan, however, refused to extradite him, and he gained his freedom. But less than a year later, he killed another man in a fight; Mr. Patterson claimed self-defense, but he was convicted of manslaughter, and it was while he was in prison for this crime that he died of cancer at the age of 39.
Which, it seems to me, is a pretty darned compelling story. Which makes it all the more frustrating that the one actually told in the show is thin.
From what I’ve read, in fact, Mr. Patterson had quite a mix of admirable virtues and serious faults — hot-tempered and easily pushed to violence, yet passionate and intelligent — in both cases, to a much greater degree than the play shows us. His too-short life would make a terrific story for the stage, I think, but this one seems to me to shy away from both extremes, downplaying both his faults and his virtues, making him out to be a very ordinary guy trying to find his path in an extraordinary situation. As I write this, I realize that this is a perfectly valid story to want to tell, but turning a fairly recent historical event into something very different and yet continuing to say that you’re telling a true story seems a bit dicey to me. Maybe the writers would have done better to turn it into an explicitly fictional event, like the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird, or found an actual event that better fit the kind of story they wanted to tell.
There’s another and more abstract reason that I’m not wild about the minstrel show metaphor, too. I’m just feeling like I’ve seen this basic device tried over and over and over again in musicals: An unpleasant story, or sometimes just a particularly unpleasant part of a story, is told for ironic effect through the relentlessly upbeat music of some bygone popular song style or styles. I’ve occasionally seen it done brilliantly, as in Chicago, the Loveland sequence in Follies, parts of Assassins, the Grand Canal sequence in Nine. More often I’ve seen it done not so brilliantly, as in Grind, Barnum, Rags, and so on and so forth and so on and so forth. Ultimately it’s a device that’s difficult to get a lot of depth or scope or heart into, and I’m kind of tired of it. I remember already being kind of tired of it in the musical theater writing workshop I was part of for many years way back in the 1980s. I’m tired of it even though there’s such a sequence in the second act one of my very favorite musicals, The Golden Apple (which as far as I know was the first show to use the device in any kind of extended way, back in I think the 1950s).
I hate to crab so much about the show, though, because in spite of all this, there are a lot of things in it to enjoy. The performances are winning. The singing is great. The dancing is absolutely spectacular. But I kept hoping for more depth and character in the story, given the seriousness of the subject matter, and it never got there.