Saturday 21 December 2013

The Scottsboro Boys

Young Vic Theatre,  London


Music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed and choreography by Susan Stroman

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon look down on Kyle Scatliffe

The legendary Broadway partnership of John Kander and Fred Ebb achieved their final collaboration with The Scottsboro Boys, a glorious treatment of an infamous chapter in the history of the American South. Kander and Ebb don’t do easy. Their view of the world is always through a sharply skewed prism, they strip away facades and revel in exposing the frailties that lie beneath. So it was that around the end of the 20th century, when these two wily writers scanned the history books for inspiration, their gaze settled upon the travesty of an injustice that befell nine innocent black men.

Riding the rails from Georgia in 1931, the train these nine had hopped stopped suddenly in Scottsboro, Alabama following a fight on board (that had not involved them). Two white women then falsely accused the nine of rape and they were summarily arrested, convicted and were to spend many years and endure countless appeals and retrials as death sentences were repeatedly pronounced and adjourned. For a time, the Scottsboro Boys were a cause celebre, polarising the USA across very old divisions. The South wanted them executed whilst the liberal North sought their liberty. That those Boys who were eventually paroled, were only freed after having had to falsely “admit” their guilt, only added to the cruel irony of the shameful saga. One man Haywood Patterson (a tour de force performance from American actor Kyle Scatliffe) could not bring himself to confess to a crime he hadn't committed and some twenty years later, was to die in jail.

Its grim material for a show, but that’s where Kander and Ebb are at their finest. Where their Chicago was scenes from Death Row staged as a series of Vaudeville numbers and Cabaret played out in a sleazy Berlin bar, so The Scottsboro Boys is told through the vehicle of a traditional minstrel show. Nine men play the Boys, whilst two other actors play the traditional minstrel roles of Mr Tambo and Mr Bones. Overseeing the whole on stage performance is the white-man authority figure of the minstrel show’s Interlocutor. 

Ebb died in 2004, some 6 years before Susan Stroman was to bring the show firstly to Broadway and now to London. Stroman extracts theatrical gold from her UK company, who include (amongst other Broadway performers, over on an Equity swap) Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo reprising the extreme satirists Tambo and Bones that they created in New York. In white suit and top hat, veteran brit Julian Glover is the evening’s Interlocutor, presenting a chillingly benign face of the all too acceptable racism that built the South. Drawing on ragtime, blues and spirituals for inspiration, the songs are all pointed. Go Back Home in particular, being a mournfully despairing blues number sung by Patterson and the youngest boy, Eugene. (And made all the more special on the Broadway cast recording by being sung by John Kander himself, solo, as an album extra. Buy it!)

The tale makes much of the importance of truth. The Alabama women lie whilst the Scottsboro Boys who are freed, only obtain liberty through a false confession. The song Make Friends With The Truth is possibly one of Kander and Ebb's best, telling the tale of a fictional black boy Billy, who after being lynched confesses his crimes to St Peter. Whilst Billy's honest confession gains him entry to Heaven, the last laugh is on him as he finds the pearly gates barred and discovers that even the afterlife is segregated, where a black man has to enter via the back door. 

Other memorable numbers are the false accusations made by the Alabama Ladies in the song of that title. Forrest McClendon’s That’s Not The Way We Do Things, sees him play a New York defence lawyer in a goggle eyed performance that suggests the mania of Cabaret’s Emcee, whilst Haywood’s beautifully defiant final number You Can’t Do Me, echoes the soft yet sinister, harsh staccato sound that Kander and Ebb deployed so masterfully in Cabaret’s Finale.

Stroman’s vision eschews fancy sets, relying instead on simple chairs, planks and the outstanding singing, dancing and acting of her troupe. In a year that has seen this show together with The Amen Corner and The Color Purple all staged within the creative powerhouse that is London's SE1 postal district, the capital has witnessed some truly astonishing theatre based around stories of the 20th century African American heritage. The Scottsboro Boys is an ugly story, beautifully told. As with Chicago and Cabaret, it could also, one day, make for a wonderful movie.

The Broadway original cast recording of The Scottsboro Boys is available to download from iTunes.

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