December 5th, 2010

La Loge

The Scottsboro Boys

I'd love to write a long and thoughtful piece about this play, about rage and art and history and how to make it all palatable enough to a modern audience so that they'll take in what they need to hear and not simply walk out at intermission (or in the middle of a production number, since The Scottsboro Boys is played without intermission).  I'll certainly do my best.  But Freedom Maze is due at the end of the month, and 'tis the season for parties and rejoicing, and I haven't seen most of my friends for far too long, owing to All The Traveling in the World, OMG.  Not to mention, you know, Daily Life.  So here goes.

Can rage make good art?  There's certainly a lot of art that's grown out of rage, from Aristophanes through Swift to (arguably) Tony Kushner.  Some of it's good, some of it's bad, and (like any other kind of art), its quality tends to reflect the extent to which the message is mediated through the medium.  "I'm really mad about This.  This is HORRIBLE.  This makes me so angry I could spit!!!!! And if it doesn't make you angry too, then you're a subhuman bottom-feeder, and I hate you almost as much as I hate This" is not good art.  Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which sets forth a pseudo-serious plan for solving the population problem in Ireland by culling Irish babies for the British pot, is.  It's queasy-making, certainly (I hated it when we read it in school, in 10th grade, I think).  The subtext of anger, horror, and loathing is not very far under the surface.  But the surface is genuinely, if savagely, funny, and startling enough so that the reader immediately (even if temporarily) must see the problem (in this case, the English subjugation and exploitation of the Irish) from Swift's point of view.

And what does this have to do with The Scottsboro Boys?

Well, in 1931, nine young black men between the ages of 12 and 19 were dragged off the box-car they were riding to Chattanooga to find work and arrested for raping two white women, one of whom later testified that she had lied about the whole incident.  Even given the total lack of evidence, all nine of them were found guilty.  Every time a higher court or an appeal awarded them a new trial, the verdict came in the same:  guilty.  The four youngest were eventually released, three were paroled after years of hard labor, and two died in prison, having served more than half their lives for a crime they absolutely did not commit.  No matter what way you look at it, it's not exactly a story that makes you say, "Oh!  That would make a wonderful musical comedy!"

And yet, somehow, it did.

The Scottsboro Boys is not an easy play to watch.  The musical idiom John Kander and Fred Ebb draw from is the Southern minstrel show, which (as the program itself points out) "is a uniquely American art form, built on racial stereotypes and blind bigotry."  The action is directed by Mr. Interlocutor, played by the remarkable John Cullum, the only white member of the cast. The other white characters--the Alabama sheriff, the judge, the lawyers--are played by Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the traditional minstrel end-men and clowns.  All the other characters, including the women who accused the boys of rape, are shared among the actors who play the boys.  Everybody, except the boys themselves, is played broadly, stereotypically, over-the-top, for laughs.

Yes, it's funny.  Yes, quite a lot of it is painful to watch.  The most painful (and the most moving) number is when Haywood Patterson--who died in prison because he refused to confess to a rape he hadn't committed at his parole hearing--begins by delivering his testimony serious and straight, and then, in response to Mr. Interlocutor's badgering him to tell the truth, delivers it again, shucking and jiving and drawling and dancing like a good little gollywog, with all the other characters grinning and nodding in response. The woman sitting next to me (white, as was much of the audience) sat forward, sat back, ruched around in her seat through the whole number.  And cried near the end, when all the Boys came on, in full black-face, to tapdance and sing the bare, horrible facts of their lives after prison.  As did I.

If they'd left it there, the play would have been unbearable.  But they don't.  Throughout the play, a slender women in a print dress and glasses, carrying a black purse, lingers in the margins of the action, reacting, weeping, watching, sending cake to the prisoners, standing up when the Interlocutor wants her chair--bearing witness to the whole sorry spectacle.  At the end, she sits in one of the chairs that make up the  set and refuses to move when the Interlocutor, dressed as a bus attendant, tells her to move to the back of the bus.  That scene, quietly and naturally played, makes me cry even to remember.  It doesn't take the horror out of what has gone before, but it does make the play bearable.

And how is this going over with the New York theatre-going public, at $100 a pop?  Well, the play is closing December 12, after 49 performances There's an article about it here.  I think this is a pity.  On the other hand, it opened on Broadway at all, which I don't think it would have 10 years ago.  Those who love it, love it a lot.  Those who hate it are, I think, as confused by its interstitiality (minstrel show/social realism/musical/political statement) as offended by its content.  Does every minute of it work?  No.  Sometimes over the top isn't significant, it's just over the top.  But I'm glad Kander and Ebb put it together, and I'm glad it got produced, and I suspect it will be popping up here and there at regional theatres from time to time because it's got some wonderful parts in it, and some really good numbers.  And then you can go see it and judge for yourselves.