Juggling with taboos is an ambitious policy, especially when the subject is racial. The Scottsboro Boys tackles head-on the racially motivated trial of nine wrongly accused black men, which started in Alabama in 1931. But the story is told in musical form, with liberal use of stereotypical (and no longer politically correct) black face and minstrel motifs. The initial discomfort of the audience is leavened by the humor and solid performances of the production. But still, the unease lingers.
John Kander and Fred Ebb created the music and lyrics, and they have tackled touchy subjects before in their acclaimed productions of Flora the Red Menace, Woman of the Year and Kiss of the Spider Woman, among others.
The nine men (one was actually a boy of 13) were accused of raping two white women while aboard a train. One woman recanted, but trial after bogus trial drew the unwelcome spotlight on the racial inequality of the judicial system. It was only 82 years later than an official pardon was issued by the State of Alabama. This musical and the pardon are hence contemporaneous events.
Undoubtedly the ambitious blending of the factual with the minstrel motifs draws stark attention to the terrible tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys, a/k/a the Scottsboro Nine.
It is a distasteful chapter in American history, one with each passing year people wanted to forget. But as the musical reveals, the trials dragged on relentlessly even if the headlines disappeared.
The polarizing nature of utilizing the minstrel conventions lies at the core of the musical. The white interlocutor acts as emcee, tying together the plot elements. Hal Linden does an admirable job in the most incendiary role.
Joshua Henry is outstanding as the central Scottsboro Boy. His prior work in Porgy and Bess and American Idiot was the ideal framework for the role of Haywood Patterson. “Nothin’” and “Make Friends With the Truth” are especially poignant.
Susan Stroman aptly handles direction and choreography of this challenging production.