It’s Creepy Time Down South

Now making its Bay Area debut at American Conservatory Theater, The Scottsboro Boys is a curious concoction that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. The final collaboration between composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, the team that brought us Cabaret and Chicago, the 2010 musical takes a landmark case in the fight for the right of African-Americans to get a fair trial in the segregated South and tells it in the style of a minstrel show, the now-notorious blackface variety acts that remained popular into the first couple of decades of the 20th century (and survived in some areas as late as the 1960s). Minstrel stock characters Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo, and the Interlocutor play many of the roles around the nine unjustly incarcerated men, and the performance style is a curious mélange of broad proto-vaudeville comedy with intentionally cringeworthy racial jokes, passionate semi-naturalism from the prisoners, and the usual conventions of Broadway musicals in which we accept that people break into song and dance at the slightest provocation.

Jared Joseph, Hal Linden and JC Montgomery in The Scottsboro Boys. Photo by Kevin Berne.

With a clever script by David Thompson, who previously collaborated with Kander and Ebb on 1997’s Steel Pier and the 1996 revival of Chicago that made the musical a much-belated hit, Scottsboro’s Broadway run two years ago was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won none (that was the year The Book of Mormon, which SHN is bringing next door to the Curran Theatre in November, swept the Tonys). Now The Scottsboro Boys comes to San Francisco fresh from runs earlier this year in Philadelphia and San Diego.

In 1931, to avoid getting arrested for riding a boxcar in Alabama, two young white prostitutes accuse the nine young black teenage boys riding in the same car of raping them. With only the most cursory court-appointed defense, they’re found guilty and sentenced to death. But with the intervention of the American Communist Party (a strong voice for civil rights) and out-of-state attorneys, they’re granted retrial after retrial, only to be found guilty each time, even though one of the original women recants her initial testimony and now says they made up the whole thing. It’s a grim case study in the way the entirely legal apparatus of the South was (and to some extent, still is) hopelessly stacked against African America men, and the contrast between the monstrous injustice and the grotesque merriment of minstrelsy is jarring in a way that’s brutally effective. (Seriously, what is it with Kander and Ebb and prison musicals?  Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and now this.)

Starting with an ominous drum beat and a jaunty banjo tune, Kander’s music shows is laced with period influences of ragtime, spirituals, minstrel shows and vaudeville—that is to say, not so much the 1930s and 1940s of the Scottsboro case itself so much as the turn-of-the-century sound of the chosen cultural motif—but the dominant sound is still very much old-school Broadway that sounds dated for today but not quite dated enough to fully evoke give the period feel that Kander and Ebb seemed to be going for.

Although not as memorable as some of their other work, most of the almost relentlessly upbeat Scottsboro songs are awfully entertaining in the ACT production helmed by original director and choreographer Susan Stroman and featuring a few members of the Broadway cast (one original cast member and two original understudies) and almost everyone from the San Diego cast, with the notable addition of Hal Linden, TV’s Barney Miller, as the Interlocutor. There’s a powerful, initially a cappella ode to the South sung through gritted teeth.

Nile Bullock’s terrified 13-year-old prisoner Eugene Williams —amazingly, not the youngest of the boys in the case—does an impressive tap dance in an unnervingly merry ditty about the electric chair. (Epileptics be warned: there’s some strobe involved in Ken Billington’s starkly effective lighting design.)

Beowulf Borritt’s set is a terrific mix of simplicity and versatility. Three mammoth frames ring the stage, each more severely slanted than the last, and a pile of chairs get reconfigured endlessly, interlocking to become whatever the scene calls for—a train-car floor, a jail cell, a courtroom.

The world of the show is filled out admirably by the dynamic cast of 15, who sneak out of the group and return in a variety of roles. The heart of the show is Haywood Patterson, played with glowering dignity by Clifton Duncan (one of two Cliftons in the cast—what are the odds?). He’s a righteously defiant prisoner who refuses to be treated this way, and especially refuses to bow and scrape to get out of it. Patterson is notably also the only prisoner who doesn’t partake in the sinisterly chipper blackface finale. His only concession to the minstrel conceit is a mocking parody of Stepin Fetchit eyerolling in his furious song of refusal to submit, “Nothin’.”

Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery make an amusingly broad comic duo as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, in gaudy genre-appropriate outfits by Toni-Leslie James, taking on the roles of brutal Alabama cops, ineffectual lawyers and menacing prison guards thinly over their outsize minstrel-show personae. Although they’re good at the clowning it can easily get wearying, so it’s a bit of a relief when they more thoroughly embody the roles of more serious lawyers when the case is more seriously tried. Montgomery is hilariously puffed-up as the well-meaning but full-of-himself crusading do-gooder Samuel Leibowitz (with a show-stopping number, “That’s Not the Way We Do Things”), and Joseph is chilling as the oily-slick district attorney who deflects what could be an open-and-shut case for acquittal with a deft bit of Jew-baiting (the insidiously catchy “Financial Advice,” the chorus of which is “Jew money”).

Some of the other cartoonish roles are taken on by the otherwise dignified and semi-naturalistic inmates. Clifton Oliver is appropriately infuriating as the sashaying, unrepentant Southern belle fatale Victoria Price, and original Broadway cast member James T. Lane is quite funny as the dim-witted and exaggeratedly dainty Ruby Bates. Lane is also haunting as Ozie Powell, a fretful prisoner who becomes catatonic after being shot in prison. Eric Jackson, an intense presence as the violently enraged prisoner Clarence Norris, has a walk-on as a cluelessly unctuous preacher. And Nile Bullock, touchingly innocent as young Eugene, also appears as a young white boy hawking lynching souvenirs at their trial. (Who that boy will grow up to be is part of the joke.)

As played by Linden in a white suit reminiscent of Colonel Sanders, at first it’s hard to know what to make of the Interlocutor. The first judge he plays is so vague and distracted that you may wonder if Linden’s doing okay, but subsequent roles are much sharper. The main thing, though, is that in a show that’s so deeply about white racism it’s disconcerting at first to have the only white face in an otherwise all-black cast be such a kindly presence, playing sympathetic but disengaged judges and other officials as well as the genial ringmaster of the action. More and more, however, the Interlocutor embodies the ludicrous veneer of benevolent “don’t we take good care of you” paternalism that was used to rationalize segregation, and slavery before that. That becomes increasingly apparent as he keeps trying to rouse the furious downtrodden to dance the cakewalk and sing sentimental songs about the South until they’re just not having it anymore.

Another curious element is The Lady, feelingly portrayed by C. Kelly Wright, whom we first see waiting for a bus with a cake box in her lap. Watching the proceedings silently and sadly, except for a glimmer of excitement whenever it seems like there may be some hope for the defendants, she’s a constant, unassuming background presence for the whole play. She’s the only woman in the cast, but it’s left to the gents to play any actual women characters, as campily as possible. It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that she’s a Rosa Parks figure; the question is when and how that will actually be tied in to the story being told. The answer is that she’s there strictly as a framing device. She never takes part in the action of the Scottsboro Boys story, and certainly not in any of the minstrel-show high jinks, although there’s a striking scene in which Patterson does a somber dance in the spotlight (“You Can’t Do Me”) and she mirrors it in the darkness behind him, watching him intently. Also, and this is key, after the happy ending the Interlocutor promised turns out very grim, she provides the closest thing this story could have to a happy ending—which surely must be why she was included in the first place, and why her character feels somewhat tacked on.

The transitions from scene to song and back again are sometimes a little disjointed, but there are some charming scenes, such as Clinton Roane’s sensitive, bookish Roy teaching Patterson to write through each letter’s resemblance to breasts (starting, of course, with the letter B). A bit of pop psychology about what in Patterson’s childhood leaves him unable to lie is probably unnecessary, but the shadow-puppet fairy-tale he sings about why you must never lie (the jolly “Make Friends with the Truth”) is a treat.

It’s sometimes uneven and meandering—not to mention tush-wearying at two hours without intermission—but by and large The Scottsboro Boys is a powerful show that tackles difficult subject matter in a way that’s entertaining and acutely uncomfortable at the same time—just as it should be. There’s something about the minstrel-show format that makes the viewer feel complicit in the kind of broad stereotyping that was used to convict these young men of a crime they did not commit, which is a useful thing when it’s too easy to tut-tut from a safe distance at the savagery of a different region at a different time. Feeling an uncomfortable touch of shame while watching a story like this seems only appropriate.

The Scottsboro Boys
Through July 22
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #61 of 2012, attended June 27.

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