Between the utterly glorious dancing and some truly incandescent songs come the gut punches that slam audience members to their seats. The surface is a trifle gaudy, a little silly at times, with old vaudeville-type jokes, but underpinning this Washington, D.C., premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys” is a harder truth that is inescapable, and presciently relevant.
It is thought-provoking, timely, and brilliantly executed. This is a show worth seeing more than once.
It is prescient because theatres start their planning for a season a year or two out. This show directly confronts the racism becoming more overt and ugly every day, and reminds us that we really haven’t traveled so far from 1931. Structured through a minstrel show witnessed by an audience of one (The Lady, played by Felicia Curry), the story of these nine boys will break your heart. And they were just boys—the youngest was 12, the oldest was 19. Most of them had been working for years, however, and none had gone beyond the fifth grade.
They happened to be on the same train, hitching in the boxcars, looking for work or traveling to where a job might be when fate intervened horribly. There had been some young white men on the train and they had complained to a station conductor that they had had a run-in with some black boys. There were also two young women hoboing and looking for work, but who had disguised themselves with overalls. When the sheriff and his deputy came, the two women and the black youths were rounded up; in an effort to save themselves from jail, the women accused the black teenagers of rape. It was 1931, in the Depression and the South, and these boys didn’t stand a chance.
The story of the numerous trials and prison terms is told through the eyes of the young men as they sing and dance and jape at the command of The Interlocutor (a riveting Christopher Block) and the sheriff and deputy. But there’s a hard edge underneath that rams home the point that to be black in America is to be just one accusation from losing everything. John Kander and Fred Ebb created a musical that doesn’t dance to the “dark side” and then step delicately back but roars through the abyss and forces you to look at it. The book by David Thompson works beautifully with the music and lyrics; it’s not an afterthought or filler between songs.
And the dancing! With choreography by Jared Grimes, the cast brings heart, incredible skill, and a wonderful edge to the dance routines. It all looks so effortless and the movements are so big and strong that they fill the stage from side to side. Jonathan Adriel (Andy Wright), Malik Akil (Charles Weems/Victoria Price), Chaz Alexander Coffin (Mr. Tambo), C.K. Edwards (Roy Wright), DeWitt Fleming, Jr. (Ozie Powell/Ruby Bates), Scean Aaron (Willie Roberson and subbing for Andre Hinds), Darrell Wayne Purcell (Clarence Norris), Aramie Payton (Eugene Williams), Lamont Walker II (Haywood Paterson), Joseph Monroe Webb (Olen Montgomery), and Stephen Scott Wormley (Mr. Bones) perform in near perfect unity.
Lamont Walker II as Haywood Paterson is the conscience of the show—he refuses to tell a lie, even to get out of prison. He knows it will cost him, but his choice to stand up as a man and refuse to take the easy way out is as heartbreaking as it is brave. Particularly in the song “Go Back Home” that he headlines, the centuries of despair and hopelessness and injustice faced by African Americans becomes an anthem of hope and longing. It is pitiliess in its power to encapsulate the pain of their lives and the lives of their ancestors.
As The Lady, Felicia Curry is the link between the boys and future generations. Without a word of dialogue until the end and with her back to the audience for most of the show as she sits on a series of rickety old wood theatre seats on the audience floor, she is a force in this production. You can feel the tension, sorrow, anger and hardening resolve just from the set of her shoulders or the tilt of her head. It is an amazing performance.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is directed by Joe Calarco—under his direction the material just shines. Musical direction is by Brian P. Whitted, scenic design by Daniel Conway (a brilliant use of chairs throughout), and the atmospheric lighting design is by Sherice Mojgani.
This is a show that is hard to watch because it tackles head-on racism in America. It doesn’t pretty it up, it doesn’t try to say, but look how far we’ve come, it doesn’t hide reality. Through the songs and dialogue, it brings to full messy life the injustices and exhaustion that being black in America entails. It is thought-provoking, timely, and brilliantly executed. This is a show worth seeing more than once.
Running Time: Approximately two hours with no intermission.
“The Scottsboro Boys” runs May 22 – July 1, 2018, at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.