The Old Globe presents the West Coast Premiere of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS the critically-acclaimed musical about the story of The Scottsboro Boys. Playing through June 10 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage in the Old Globe Theatre, this is presented in association with American Conservatory Theater.
John Kander and Fred Ebb were never ones to shy away from controversial or potentially polarizing stories in their musicals. In Chicago they mock the justice system with a pair of merry murderesses and Cabaret is set the tumultuous city of Berlin, just before Hitler's rise to power. So it is no surprise that Kander and Ebb chose to tackle the landmark trials of The Scottsboro Boys.
Based on a not particularly proud moment in American history, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS follows the true story of nine young black men aged 13 to 19 who were arrested on trumped-up charges in 1931 Alabama. The nine men (and boys) were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. The ordeal that followed involved a series of trials that would last over years—and in some cases, decades. Their lives and experiences helped spark the civil rights movement.
So how does Kander and Ebb take this sensitive and politically charged moment and turn it into a musical? What device would best be used to tell this story? Kander and Ebb chose to frame it in the guise of a minstrel show. This format only helps reinforce the racism that is at the root of everything that happens to them. The cast of characters includes a kindly, old white southern Interlocutor (master of ceremonies of a minstrel show), the nine men who portray the accused and two performers who play the rest of the roles needed.
Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) take on the roles of the abusive guards, the slick and conniving lawyers, and any other characters the plot requires. They play them with a gleeful energy—as fools who will do anything for a laugh to entertain their audience. Their cruelty and their cheerful willingness to "help" tell this story, only underscore the menace in their attitude and behavior.
The nine young men are introduced to the audience as they introduce themselves to each other. Aside from the two brothers riding the rails, none of the men knew each other prior to this experience. They were all riding the rails in hopes of something better before they were pulled off the train. Nile Bullock plays the youngest of the group, a 13-year-old boy who doesn't even know the definition of rape, the very crime he is accused of committing. Bullock is a wonderful performer and dancer, and his tap number "Electric Chair" is a great dance set within a child’s nightmare.
As the central character, Clifton Duncan is fantastic as the steadfast Haywood. He comes into jail as an illiterate young man and becomes the focal point of the story as he refuses to agree to a lie in order to get parole. The song "Go Back Home" is gorgeous and Duncan’s portrayal is both powerful and yearning; his greatest defiance is that he tells the truth.
Individually, these actors are strong, with impressive singing and dancing skills. As an ensemble they shine, with many of them playing double or triple roles when needed. James T. Lane and Clifton Oliver are funny and galling as the accusing ladies in "Alabama Ladies." Vocally they are at their best as a group in their tightly-harmonized numbers. Particular standout ensemble songs are "Commencing in Chattanooga" and "Southern Days."
As the Interlocutor, Ron Holgate is the perfect Southern gentlemen, smiling congenial and seemingly unaware of how inappropriate his requests are of these boys. This is never more apparent then when he encourages the boys to sing one of the “oldies” which turns out to be a lovely song about those consummate days of slavery. Mid-song he commands them to smile and the smiles immediately appear, along with verses about lynching and danger. In this moment you know this is a man who is not just out of step with the world he is in, but is also is incapable of understanding why these boys would ever want things to change.