December 2, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys

A musical about 9 black teenagers falsely accused of rape by two white women in the Jim Crow South in 1931? Not exactly one's idea of a fun night at the theatre.
But if you want a theatre experience like no other, go see The Scottsboro Boys. I'm glad that Pinky recommended we watch the show. I was apprehensive about seeing a musical with such a heavy subject matter. How can they make this work? And even more anxious when I found out it would be told in minstrel style. But all my fears were for naught. The minstrel show was appropriate in portraying the sham trials, the farce, the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the case. (Shades of Chicago. In fact, Samuel Leibowitz could be Billy Flynn.)
Tony Award-winner John Cullum is the only white performer in the cast. He mainly plays the interlocutor, the host of the minstrel show, oblivious to the racism and prejudice surrounding this form of entertainment. He gets a big surprise when instead of a cake walk, the grand finale turns into one of the most powerful endings I have ever seen in a show.
Pinky told me that the show has been a target of protests. Speaking as an Asian audience member, I could perhaps see people being offended by its use of the minstrel tradition, the depiction of southern white characters, or maybe even the fact that no other Caucasian actors were cast. Maybe they just heard that there was a song about Jew money. Or that blackface was used in the show. While it was jarring to see, what better way to convey the evils of a segregated, racist society than through minstrelsy? A relic of America's shameful past.
The direction, the choreography, minimalist set design and staging---incredible. The performers, tremendous...Josh Henry as Haywood Patterson, the young Jeremy Gumbs as Eugene Williams, Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo, Christian Dante White. Watch out for the Electric Chair scene. Talk about discomfiture! You want to applaud enthusiastically for the dancing, but horrified by the song lyrics. This unsettling show takes you out of your comfort zone, and leaves you there, haunted.
If you want to watch something that will make you think, tap your toes, squirm in your seat, cheer, then see this courageous show. Kander and Ebb's musical is provocative, moving, distressing. I had to fight back tears a couple of times. I'm picking it as the Tony Best Musical. Unfortunately, Pinky told me that the show is closing. Catch this unique show before it closes 12 December 2010.

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