Review and Reflect: “The Scottsboro Boys” at SpeakEasy Stage Company

Tara Kennedy

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

Those of you who have read my other reviews may recall that I was disappointed to have missed Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” when it was on Broadway. Thanks to my sister attending Emerson and once working at the Huntington Theater, she was still tapped into the Boston theater scene and let me know that this show was happening at the SpeakEasy Stage Company. I sent a number of ALL CAPS emails to my husband, telling him that in no uncertain terms WE ARE GOING TO GO SEE THIS SHOW. And we did.

The night after Donald Trump was elected as our next President of the United States.

Based on the platform that our President-elect ran on, you could call it timely or ironic that we sat in a darkened theater watching a minstrel-show-within-a-musical about nine African-American men who were (repeatedly) wrongly convicted in the 1930s Jim Crow South. The mood in the theater was palpable, and there is no doubt that these performers – who were primarily Black – must’ve felt some sense of emotional pain and betrayal. But, as they say, the show must go on, and thank God it did. This show is every bit as provocative and poignant as I had hoped it would be, and it is more important than ever that people go and see it. It is an exceptional theatrical experience.

For those unfamiliar with the history behind the show, nine African-American men were rounded up off of a train near Scottsboro, Alabama after being accused of rape by two white women, who were also on the train. The unjust trials of these men climbed all the way to the Supreme Court – twice!  The Supreme Court found justification for new trials based on the Alabama courts’ gross violations of due process and the Equal Protection Clause; the state of Alabama had violated portions of the 6th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.  

If the history of the law doesn’t excite you, don’t worry: there isn’t much didactic rhetoric going on in this musical. What is going on is spirited storytelling that will make you squirm in your seat. Hey, no one said art is supposed to be comfortable, and this most certainly isn’t, but it isn’t meant to be. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you are not paying attention.

The minstrel show within this musical is orchestrated by the Interlocutor AKA the “master of these folks” (played with brilliantly-disturbing condescension by Russell Garrett) and two minstrel performers, Mr. Bones (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Mr. Tambo (Brandon G. Green), who portray a number of the white characters throughout the show. Mr. Parent is particularly brilliant at making of a mockery of these Jim Crow bigots; his ability to lampoon through his physicality is awesome.  

What’s great about this play-with-a-play is that it’s the traditional minstrel show turned on its head: blacks ridiculing whites. As a white woman who had just cried all day because a racist was elected to the White House, I found it cathartic.  I laughed even though most of the audience was not comfortable enough to join me. I had some seriously stoic audience members around me, short of my husband.  I say to my fellow audience members: folks, this is a show where the quality of the performance must win over your repulsion of the material. Case in point: my husband and I were the first to stand up and applaud at the end.

I also want to mention the two actors who played the Scottsboro Boys’ accusers, Victoria Price (Darrell Morris, Jr.) and Ruby Bates (Isaiah Reynolds). Their caricatures of these two instigators were excellent in their song, “Alabama Ladies.” Another favorite was “Never Too Late” which focuses on Ruby Bates’ recanting of her testimony against the men. Mr. Reynolds was delightful as a repentant Ruby. 

One element that would not be evident if one only listened to the soundtrack: a character known as The Lady (Shalaye Camillo) who is the omnipresent observer of the minstrel show. She sees it all and occasionally comes into the scene to provide comfort and support to the Scottsboro Boys, primarily Haywood Patterson (De’Lon Grant). She represents the suppressed and the silent; the quiet witnesses who have seen history and know what they need to do. 

Another element that requires the visual for its horror factor: the tap dance number, “Electric Chair.” The dancers sport the leather headgear that one would wear if being executed in one of those devices.  The up-lighting during that number made the dancers look like hollow ghosts, the stuff of nightmares. 

There are fantastic, emotional moments as well: Grant’s “You Can’t Do Me” is one of them. He cries out for justice with impassioned vigor: “We won’t stand with our hands in our pockets… What was once a whisper is now a roar!” Never was there a time when those lyrics mean so much. In general, the singing in this show was fantastic: beautiful, heart-melting harmonies sail through the theater. 

The simplistic, rustic set design by Eric Levenson was versatile and worked wonderfully: the proscenium was painted in a crude, vaudevillian design, and using rolling scaffold platforms for the boxcars and as bunk beds in the prison scenes? Genius! 

Toward the end of the show, attorney Samuel Leibowitz encourages Haywood Patterson to write down what he has experienced. Haywood looks at him and says, “Who’s gonna learn from it?” I want to yell, “US!” from the top of the raking seats in the theater, but have we? I thought we had, but as this election has demonstrated, we have a long way to go from the minstrel show.  

Photo: Nile Hawver