Masterfully communicated through the art of minstrel storytelling, Kander and Ebb's "The Scottsboro Boys" turns around the stereotypes and exaggerated personalities that encouraged racism in the early 1900s to create a surprisingly poignant musical that celebrates the voice of the individual and reminds Americans of the pain necessary to bring about change.
A nameless woman of historical importance (played by C. Kelly Wright) looks on as the minstrel team, led by Hal Linden as the Interlocutor, tells the mostly true story of nine African Americans falsely accused of raping two white women in the 1930s. The "Lady," as the program refers to her, acts as a doorway to the tale, mirroring audience reactions and, ultimately, in her only spoken lines, delivering the final punch needed to permanently mark the show on the minds of its modern audiences.
Just how the famous trial story applies to modern politics and justice will likely spark heated conversation among those interested enough, and for anyone really paying close attention, quick references to the Communist party that stood behind the boys in their trials may intensify the conversation in light of contemporary conservative positions. But no matter your political views, the musical remains a thought-provoking tribute to the groundbreaking movements that shaped the formation of present-day United States.
The ragtime style tunes and minstrel characters of the show provide the perfect framing as The Players slowly find themselves changed by their story and begin to withdraw from the "happy ending" the Interlocutor attempts to paint - he never does get to do that cake walk he so blindly desires.
As much as the minstrel storytelling contrasts rumor and stereotypes with the painful truth, it also balances the story's darker elements with plenty of humor. The Interlocutor's sidekicks Mr. Tambor and Mr. Bones (JC Montgomery and Jared Jospeh) play multiple characters that bicker with and bounce hilarious jokes off each other. Two of the nine boys also play the two white accusatory women in the hilarious "Alabama Ladies." There's plenty of dancing (choreographed by Susan Stroman) to lighten the mood, as well, even in the show's darker moments.
Although Clifton Duncan gets most of the spotlight as Haywood Patterson, the Scottsboro boy who leaves a legacy with a written account, his fellow performers deserve equal recognition. Nile Bullock stands out as the youngest boy in the cast, and all nine Scottsboro boys move like one on the stage while creatively utilizing the minimal sets, a group of chairs stacked on top of each other and spread about differently in each scene to create the setting. One scene also includes clever use of shadow puppetry, as well.
The lack of an intermission does make "Scottsboro Boys" lag a bit in the middle, but overall the straight-through two-hour length serves the story well, displaying a non-stop, energetic musical bound to leave a strong impression on its spectators.
The Scottsboro Boys
Through July 22
American Conservatory Theatre