It has always been a poignant paradox that the depths of American racial injustice have frequently been accompanied by great music, from the soaring spiritualism of gospel to the raw stoicism of the blues (with the complexity behind Louis Armstrong's smile as daunting as Mona Lisa's). So while the idea of staging a musical about the Scottsboro Boys of the 1930s might at first glance seem improbable, on further reflection the notion is nothing short of daringly provocative—if placed in the right hands.
The Scottsboro Boys is the final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb (the team behind Cabaret and Chicago), and their work here shows a startling level of intellectual and spiritual complexity. Staring into one of American history's darkest pits, they have managed to hijack the form of the contemporary musical, bending it in unexpected directions, and exploiting its visual and sonic potential in order to wildly entertain while baring an irreparably broken heart.
The action commences with "Minstrel March," in which the ensemble lays hard into the musical forms of its historical era. Overseeing (sometimes literally) the proceedings is the Interlocutor (David Anthony Brinkley), a beaming white patrician who commands the clowning, subservient Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon). From the opening moment we have the historical African American's double bind: He is expected both to accept his oppression and to do so with a smile.
The Scottsboro Boys
at the Guthrie Theater
through September 25
It isn't long before our crew of nine young men is thrown together in a rail car, all searching for something—a home, a job—that they will not find. Rousted by a policeman, they are soon jailed on trumped-up charges of raping a white woman. The action takes place quickly, on a minimal set in which a series of chairs are rapidly reconfigured to represent abstract versions of the train and, then, the jail cell into which our protagonists are thrown.
If the setup is dispensed with early on (the entire show runs an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission), it's because we're intended to get to the meat of the piece: the sadistic stasis of oppression, and the ghastly dynamic of arbitrary power. Domingo and McClendon return as warped jail guards, launching into the deceptively jaunty "Electric Chair," in which the execution of a black man is gleefully depicted as exciting fun (the hall of mirrors twisted almost a full turn here by having African American actors play the tormentors).
The nastiness of this historic injustice might be too much to bear--except it isn't, not if we're going to be honest about where we've been and what it means today. And this is the primary brilliance of Scottsboro Boys; in a number such as "Alabama Ladies," it literally converts the brutal details into entertainment, with fist-clenched blows and gunshots contributing to the beating rhythm of the score. We are not simply observing the physical and mental violence depicted, we are actually tapping our toes to it.
Without this sophisticated subversion—of our expectations, of historical perspective, of the American musical itself—we could have found ourselves with a piece of theater that merely didactically disapproved of the events surrounding the Scottsboro Boys. Instead we have a deeply satisfying piece of art, one that burrows into the textures of the fearful and returns with bleak humor, macabre textures, and an engaging, finely crafted sense of presentation.
Probably nowhere is this more true than in "Southern Days," near the end, when the Interlocutor stares off, wistfully (and rightfully) moved by the Boys' singing about the beauty and splendor of the South. He doesn't notice, of course, that the Boys are wearing looks of trepidation, even horror, while making these lovely sounds. There is plenty of beauty in the world, but for them a very particular brand of truth stands eternal sentry, making sure that that their existence is always on the other side.