Southern Discomfort: The Scottsboro’ boys storm the Young Vic

Saturday 2nd November 2013, matinée

It doesn’t take long to figure out that the true story of the Scottsboro’ boys seems like the perfect subject for a musical by Kander and Ebb, combining their interest in political oppression (‘Cabaret’ and ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman’) and, judging by ‘Chicago’, a rather jaundiced view of the legal system.  In 1931, nine young black men were riding the freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis when a fight broke out and the train was stopped in Alabama. Falsely accused of rape, the ‘Scottsboro boys’, as they came to be known, were arrested and, following a perfunctory trial, all but one were sentenced to death.  They soon became a ’cause celebre’ in the North, with legal battles lasting more than a decade, and their story is now a powerful example of the injustice which prevailed at the time, and thought by some to be one of the catalysts for the growing strength of the civil rights movement.

In Kander and Ebb’s musical, developed with choreographer and director Susan Stroman, the story is framed as a minstrel show, a device which allows all three of them to run riot with singing, dancing and comedy which is very near the knuckle, including a ‘nightmare’ dance sequence involving the electric chair, comically tyrannical white policemen, and outrageously over-the-top ‘ladies’ singing about being raped.  David Thomson’s book has taken some liberties with real events but the emphasis is on humanity rather than documentary.  As Susan Stroman said in an interview, Kander and Ebb knew they had to make it entertaining to get the audience’s attention, and they have certainly done that.  The framing provides a distancing effect and the performances are not naturalistic, but the music and dance are hugely engaging emotionally.  The ‘minstrels’, all black men, play all the characters, black and white, men and women.  At the end of the ‘show’, the actors come on stage ‘blacked up’ in traditional style, and as their disenchantment takes over, they slowly wipe off their make-up and walk away as their white leader, the ‘interlocutor’ urges them to come back and finish the tale properly.

Susan Stroman has revived her original broadway production at the Young Vic, and the fantastic cast includes a mixture of the original broadway performers and home-grown talent.  Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo provide the high comedy moments as ‘Mr Tambo’ and ‘Mr Bones’ (traditional stock minstrel characters).  They are the driving force of the story, taking on a whole range of characters.  Masters of physical comedy, slapstick, dance and song, they are a joy to watch.  As Haywood Paterson, Kyle Scatliffe is the key focus of the audience’s sympathy, beginning as an illiterate young man who just wants to find work, and rising out of his suffering by learning to write and to tell his story, finally refusing to plead guilty in exchange for parole.  He is the heart and moral centre of the story, and with a powerful, soulful voice and a still physical presence, he helps to remind us why we are there.  Doubling as two of the boys, and the women who accused them of rape, James T Lane and Christian Dante-White display an amazing emotional range, not to mention some virtuoso singing and dancing.  Idriss Kargbo as Eugene Williams, ably abetted by Emile Ruddock and Clinton Roane as the younger boys entertain with some brilliantly executed (excuse the pun) dance sequences, and we particularly enjoyed the all too brief burst of tap.

Susan Stroman’s staging is simple and effective – there is virtually no set, and most of the scenes are created with some clever use of chairs and the odd plank of wood.  Scene changes are swift and never become intrusive, yet we are always clear about the setting.

This was a very enjoyable and powerful evening for us, but there is one connection in the story which left us intrigued but also slightly disappointed.  There is a single actress in the thirteen-strong cast (Dawn Hope) who for most of the action is a silent observer, but who turns out to be (spoiler alert) a representation of Rosa Parks, whose famous refusal to sit at the back of the bus is alluded to at the end.  Keen to know whether this was just an artistic parallel or whether there was a real historical connection, we were surprised to find that her role in helping the Scottsboro’ boys was a substantial one, and that it preceded the bus incident by over twenty years.  Whilst we can see that the urge to include her must have been overwhelming, we would seriously question the passive nature of her role in the drama.  Whilst having male members of the cast playing women seemed perfectly in tune with the tone of the piece, having a real actress (albeit one with a powerful stage presence) playing such an important historical character as a footnote to the story jarred.  This telling of the story of the Scottsboro’ boys stands on its own merits.

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