"The Scottsboro Boys" is a smart and unflinching journey

Silhouettes of history: "The Scottsboro Boys" at the Guthrie
Silhouettes of history: "The Scottsboro Boys" at the Guthrie
By Paul Kolnik

I just got out of The Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie an hour ago and, while my full review will appear in the 8/18 CP, I wanted to offer some first impressions before then (it's the kind of show that one could write reams about; the difficult part is going to be narrowing its different aspects into one review). 

Scottsboro Boys

is by the creative team behind other musicals such as




, and it appears at the Guthrie at a mid-point between a successful run Off-Broadway and an upcoming Broadway launch. So what you have a chance to see at the Guthrie is a sneak peek at something that will or will not succeed in New York (time will tell).

All of which is interesting enough, but doesn't really speak to the essential question: is it a good show? In its immediate afterglow, I must say that I found it a surprise. Yes, it comes with a remarkable pedigree, the kind that generally insures at least a decent theater experience. But I wasn't fully prepared for the show's intelligence, ambiguity, and minor-key willingness to let pain and destruction coexist with acerbic asides and bleak humor.

It's the real story of nine African American men arrested and tried in 1930s Alabama on trumped-up charges of raping a white woman (the youngest among them was 12 when jailed). The show, through song and short scenes, depicts these men in jail enduring multiple trials (they became a national cause, at least in the north--it seems to have been a blue-state/red-state kind of thing). Almost all were released, although their lives were almost uniformly ruined by the experience.

None of this is remotely sugar-coated; indeed, some of the happiest numbers are delivered by the performers through (intentionally) clenched teeth. And the periodic appearance of minstrel-show conventions does little to put us at ease. It feels as though the show's creators were pushing against the feel-good expectations of the contemporary musical, having picked subject matter that at first glance seems perverse but ultimately evinces a ruthless purpose and logic.

Anyway, for a more coherent take on the show, shell out the big bucks for CP next Wednesday; something's got to pay for that deluxe filtered water we imbibe at the newspaper citadel (especially since the coffeemaker finally gave up the ghost, late and not lamented). Between now and then, I have to recommend it for the curious. Get your tickets here.

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