“That’s what we call Southern justice”
The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenage boys who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alabama in 1931 to be precise, and falsely accused of the rape of two white women, found themselves imprisoned in the hostile Deep South. But theirs was a case that ignited the racial debate in the USA and turned it into something of a cause célèbre, perhaps losing sight of the lives of these young men – some illiterate, all poor – that were irrevocably changed by their experiences. And ironically, that is the same fate suffered in this sharp-edged musical adaptation by Kander and Ebb, their last collaboration, and book writer David Thompson.
The show uses the minstrel form to frame the action, staging its own version of events in the vignettes of a minstrel show led by Julian Glover’s Interlocutor, a benign presence but in the way that some plantation owners were ostensibly nice. But rather than have white men wearing blackface, it is a black cast who play the white characters alongside the tribulations and many trials of the boys as they come up repeatedly against a society that is determined to deny them everything. And using an exaggeratedly vaudevillian style of performance, the truly shocking nature of what they went through is unblinkingly portrayed.
So a jaunty tap number is used to explore the fear of the electric chair, a striking shadow puppet routine demonstrates the harsh reality of lynching, the double whammy of racism and anti-Semitism combined into one memorably unsettling song towards the end. The combined effect is to induce chills and indignation rather than tissues and tears. Director and choreographer Susan Stroman keeps the carnivalesque atmosphere high, demanding huge athleticism from her ensemble (a mixture of original Broadway cast members and British talent) along with the music-hall stylings of the gaudier characters – Christian Dante White’s would-be Southern belle and Colman Domingo’s appalling Sheriff are two particular standouts.
But lumping the group together as The Scottsboro Boys denies them any considerable individual characteristics aside from lead Kyle Scatliffe’s extraordinary Haywood Patterson, their unique challenges broad-brushed into the one over-arching struggle. The show is most affecting though in the moments when they are allowed to be their own men, conveying a little of how the enormity of their predicament affects the individual – Adebayo Bolaji’s burning rage as Clarence Norris, Rohan Pinnock-Hamilton’s desperate Olen willing to trade anything for the return of his glasses in the midst of Beowulf Boritt’s effective yet simple design.
Kander and Ebb’s score draws on many contemporary influences like ragtime, jazz and spirituals yet remains unmistakeably their own work, their melodic tunefulness contrasting strongly and deliberately against the subject. This disquieting tone means it may be hard to love the show rather than admire it but it is impossible to deny the extreme power behind the final moments as Dawn Hope’s The Lady, hitherto an omnipresent but silent figure watching on the sidelines, comes into her own, and the most shocking statistic of all is projected onto the rear wall. Highly recommended, but in a year when US musicals such as this and The Color Purple have had UK audiences standing night after night, one hopes that writers are inspired to explore the Black British experience in a similar way.