Time Traveling With The Scottsboro Boys

All aboard!  This train is travelling to Dixie, but not the “Hooray Dixie Land” sung in lyrics, it is Jim Crow’s Dixie that is the subject matter of this musical.  The Scottsboro Boys, playing at the Vineyard Theatre, is a portal into a time in America’s history that has been forgotten.  It almost seems peculiar that a story as heavy as the Scottsboro Boys trial,  a series of trials in which nine black youths were tried and convicted of raping two white women, would end up on stage as a musical, but it is the musical numbers that makes the subject matter more palatable.  The musical takes on some of elements of minstrel show and is a nonstop rollercoaster of emotions.  At times I was offended, other times I was brought to the brink of tears and at certain times I could not help but to burst with laughter, regardless of what I was feeling I was always entertained.

I enjoy viewing productions in which the actors play multiple roles because the audience gets a true glimpse of the actors’ range.  The cast with exception of Sharon Washington (the omnipresent female figure) play several parts and the character changes are as smooth as the choreography. 

Each character was thoroughly developed and the passion for the material was reflected in the actors’ performances. Another interesting aspect of the production is the cast with exception of the Interlocutor, brilliantly portrayed by two-time Tony award winner John Cullum, are all black.   Watching black actors playing white southerners so convincingly proved the level of depth and talent that illuminated the stage.  Lights make the actors come alive, but it is the actors that make the stage come alive.   

When the curtain opens with a woman waiting to get on a bus then the mood suddenly becomes electric as Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo and the Scottsboro boys make a raucous entrance down the aisle steps to the stage for the first musical number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”    The set is basically comprised of chairs and wooden planks that are seamlessly transitioned by the cast to suit a scene or musical number, and it is the musical numbers that are the real treat of this production.  “Financial Advice” was a scream, “Make Friends with the Truth” was equally as hilarious, “You Can’t Do Me” was compelling, but my favorite was “Electric Chair.” 

The thought of turning capital punishment into a song and dance may appear to be reaching, but reaching is exactly what John Kander, Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman did and the result is a thrilling tap sequence that Bojangles and Gregory Hines would have been proud of.  From the opening number to the closing one, the songs and choreography transformed The Scottsboro Boys from experimental theater into a rootin’ tootin’ time.  I was completely mesmerized.

Bold, contemporary and filled with vigor, The Scottsboro Boys sizzles with electricity, hats off to the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman.  I also salute the cast; they worked like a well-oiled machine oozing with experience and raw soul.  In the wake of President Obama’s historic ascension to the highest office in our country, it may be easy for some, the youth in particular, to overlook this nation’s turbulent history with regards to race.  The most important component about The Scottsboro Boys is that it builds a bridge between the past and present and through quality art like this production an interest can be sparked inspiring us to learn more about the countless stories that prelude the day Rosa Parks decided not to go to the back of the bus.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg    

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