Is the most ambitious new musical of the Broadway season racist? You could get that impression from reading the press coverage of The Scottsboro Boys, a wildly entertaining coda to the rich collaboration between composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, the duo that produced sly crowd-pleasers like Chicago and Cabaret. The provocative new show employs blackface and minstrel-show tropes to tell the tragic story of the 1930s rape trial of nine innocent African-Americans, and many critics have worried over the tension between the show’s toe-tapping style and its grave subject.
The Freedom Party, an activist group, was more explicit, calling the musical racist in a press release and protesting the Lyceum Theater, creating a minor media circus. Ticket-buyers have also struggled with the dramatization of pernicious stereotypes of black men, judging by the muffled, anxious laughter on both nights I attended.
The story of the Scottsboro Boys has been told many times before, including in Langston Hughes’s 1931 agit prop drama Scottsboro Limited, which concluded with actors cheering the audience to “Rise from the dead, workers, and fight!” Kander and Ebb’s show, whose book is by David Thompson, confronts the crowd in a more indirect and ironic way, by juxtaposing two very different modes of performance. Much of the show is executed with the standard realism of musical theater. But there’s a play within a play here—and it’s an earnestly executed minstrel show dominated by broad, often ugly stereotypes and conventions rooted in racist 19th-century theater traditions. The criticism of the musical stems from a misconception about the relationship between these incongruous elements.
“In theater,” The Village Voice’s chief theater critic Michael Feingold wrote in his thundering review when the show premiered off-Broadway, “the story you tell and the way you tell it need to be to some extent, the same thing.” Chicago, which dramatizes a murder trial with flamboyantly gleeful brio, provides an obvious counter to this sweeping statement. Feingold anticipates the objection, but his distinction that Chicago does not irk as Scottsboro Boys does because it is fiction is tellingly false. Chicago was based on a play modeled after real women—and real murders—from the 1920s. Moreover, , Feingold’s concern about the careful treatment of real people long dead is beside the point: The purpose of The Scottsboro Boys is clearly not to provide a faithful history lesson. “The bursts of hoopla seem irrelevant to the substance, the cartoon cynicism cursory and glib,” Feingold wrote. “It feels as if the “Boys” are being victimized, not by American racism, but by Kander and Ebb.”
Many critics, not just Feingold, have been bothered by the musical, and specifically the minstrel show at its center. The critics fall into two contradictory camps. There are those who argue that its purpose is shallow and those who thought it too smugly obvious. It is neither.
The key to understanding the meaning of the musical is to focus not on the historical story of the Scottsboro Boys but on the imagined story of a group of actors putting on a show about the Scottsboro Boys. The critical moment in the musical comes early on, when African-American minstrel actors who have performed the story of the Scottsboro Boys many times before decide to try something different.
“Can we tell it like it really happened?” one of the performers, the proud Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), asks the Interlocutor (John Cullum), the white paternalistic maestro of the minstrel show. “This time, can we tell the truth?” The Interlocutor assents but another minstrel actor appears skeptical, confessing that they have never tried this before. We already know how the trial is going to end, but the dramatic crux of The Scottsboro Boys hinges on this question: Will these performers stuck in the vile artifice of the minstrel show be able tell the truth as they see it?
At first, it looks like they will fail. Patterson, responding to a prosecutor accusing him of rape, sings with a mix of cynicism and defiance that he’s “done nothing but I’m going to die.” After the Interlocutor tells him he’s under oath, he pantomimes his eyes popping out, rubs his head like an ape and repeats the same lines, only this time without the defiant claims of innocence. The grotesque caricature is clearly meant to signal that since Patterson is giving up of any hope of justice, there’s no sense even trying for the truth. Yet Patterson’s testimony ends with a glare whose bleak subtext hits harder than any closing argument about the evils of racism might have.
In Patterson’s switches between stereotypical caricature and sincere realism, there is hope. His movements between these modes suggests that unlike the men on trial, whose fate has been set, the characters in the minstrel show have agency—more, at least, than the actors in the historical minstrel shows, which regularly turned the hardship and discrimination endured by African-Americans into broad comedy. The actors in Kander and Ebb’s musical are stuck in a racist form, but within its confines, they have some room to move: to improvise, deceive, and dissent.
In the climactic scene, the performers don blackface and describe in a big, smiling number how the media circus surrounding the trial turned out well for the defendants: After all, they became famous! It’s like something out of Chicago—until it isn’t. When the Interlocutor orders them to do the Cakewalk, a high-stepping dance, they revolt, rub off their blackface and speak plainly in a realistic style, describing how most of their lives really ended in death and misery. In other words, they tell the truth.
The Scottsboro Boys imagines an alternate, fictional history where the minstrel show does not hide the reality of the cruel racism of the South but describes and comments on it. The minstrel show represents the lies that African-Americans are forced to tell, and while it exploits its performers, in Kander and Ebb’s imagined world, they aren’t merely victims. The actors can exploit the conventions of the minstrel show to better tell their story.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple—if it were, Kander and Ebb’s show would feel too easy, too didactic. Kander and Ebb clearly set out to provoke their audience. And veteran Broadway director Susan Stroman, who turned jokes about Hitler into blockbuster musical theater in The Producers, demonstrates that old fashioned musical theater salesmanship can unsettle as well as entertain. Watching The Scottsboro Boys, you may squirm in your seat, and not only because of the caricatures of African-Americans. Consider the condescending Jewish defense lawyer, played in the minstrel show with a nasal, anti-Semitic whine by an African-American actor. It’s an ugly caricature, capped off by an outrageous song delivered by his opposing counsel that repeatedly emphasizes the power of “Jew money.”
After invoking the lawyer this character is loosely based on, the Voice’sFeingold calls this portrait “remarkably shabby.” But if Feingold looked up from his history book at what’s onstage, he might notice that despite his arrogance and silly voice, this stylized character does not resemble the miser described in that number at all. In fact, he is a talented if condescending advocate who believes passionately in civil rights, fights hard to defend his clients, and gets half of them released. When he cuts a deal, it seems at first like a sellout, but it may well have been the best deal he could get. And despite skepticism from Patterson, he keeps working to get him freed. In The Scottsboro Boys, caricatures can be complex.
In the end, the governor of Alabama agrees to let Patterson go free if he admits he was guilty. The lawyer encourages him to do so, but Haywood refuses to lie. Here the musical represents a possible thematic evolution from Chicago, which presents an amoral world where lying to get out of jail is a benign, even endearing sin. Patterson stands his ground and dies in jail. Did he make the right choice?
The Scottsboro Boys concludes with a strained connection between Patterson’s plight and the battle for civil rights suggesting that his truth-telling established a noble legacy. But the show also allows for the argument that choosing death over a lie was rigid, misdirected pride: Patterson even delivers a monologue that suggests his inability to tell a perfectly understandable lie has as much to do with a childhood trauma than some abstract principle about justice or honesty.
Maintaining such ambiguity isn’t the only challenge The Scottsboro Boys presents to its audience. By staging its minstrel show with verve, polish, and razzmatazz, Stroman and her spectacular cast remind us that the power of show business can for a moment (or more) overwhelm moral considerations. This may trouble some audiences. But if the show’s laughs catch in the throat, that only makes the musical more interesting. The Scottsboro Boys uses show business to expose the corruption of the 1930s legal system, but it also uses a story about the legal system to expose the corruption of show business. The hysterical criticism it’s occasioned is evidence of its success.