Wednesday 8 October 2014

Backstage with The Scottsboro Boys - Feature

The Young Vic Company
As the West End welcomes The Scottsboro Boys, I ventured backstage at London’s Garrick Theatre during final rehearsals to catch up with its inspirationally committed producer Catherine Schreiber, along with one of the production’s talented US imports actor James T Lane. I wanted to learn a little more about this remarkable minstrel show, that took the Young Vic by storm last December and went on to win the (UK’s most respected) Critics’ Circle award for Best Musical 2013. 

The Scottsboro Boys was to be the final collaboration of one of the greatest songwriting partnerships, that of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb were masters of that rare art of studying man’s inhumanity to man and then being able to set the wickedness to toe-tapping tunes. Who else could have written Cabaret, a show about the rise of Nazism and the impending Holocaust, that was to give Liza Minelli such a career-defining belter of a title song. 

The start of the Scottsboro Boys’ true story may pre-date Hitler’s accession to the German Chancellorship by two years and by half a world, but history has taught us that evil respects no borders. With the Great Depression gripping the nation after the stock-market crash of 1929, people hopped freight trains to travel from one city to the next in search of work when a fight between blacks and whites broke out on a train in Jackson County on March 25, 1931. The train was brought to a halt at Scottsboro and trying to avoid arrest, two women on the train falsely accused nine black youths of raping them. It was an inflammatory allegation in the Jim-Crow South, where many whites were attempting to preserve supremacy just 66 years after the end of the Civil War and it did not take too much legal process for the accusations to be “proved” and for all nine to be sentenced to Alabama’s electric chair.

The Scottsboro Boys' plight gripped the nation, galvanising liberals in the North as their champions and proving a significant keystone in the foundations of the nascent Civil Rights Movement. Their case lurched precariously through the Alabama justice system and whilst this article will not reveal how the story ends, the whole musical focusses acutely upon the key tenet on which justice and decent society depend. That of individuals telling the truth. 

l-r David Thompson, Susan Stroman, Catherine Schreiber, John Kander
photo credit Paul Kolnick
Together with London's Young Vic and fellow New Yorker Paula Marie Black, Schreiber is Lead Producing the Garrick show, but the passion for both telling this tale and championing its cause is clearly in Schreiber's DNA. Following The Scottsboro Boys' off-Broadway premier at New York’s Vineyard Theatre (a production that gave rise to the only currently available Cast Recording, though Schreiber hints, intriguingly, at a London recording possibly being released) she worked hard to bring the show to Broadway, where it only was to last a disappointingly short run. Away from the stage and at home, her lawyer husband shares her passion for racial equality. He served his training clerkship with Thurgood Marshall, the man who was to become the first USA Supreme Court justice of African American heritage

Today, Scottsboro's The Scottsboro Boys Museum is curated by Shelia Washington and Schreiber’s eyes welled up (and to be honest, so did mine) as she spoke of having worked alongside this formidable woman, as the Broadway show (and beyond) evolved. Washington has laboured tirelessly for the Boys’ guilty verdicts to be revoked by the State of Alabama and her efforts remind us not only of the power of human endeavour (hers) in fighting for a cause, but also of quite how frighteningly recent and contemporary this whole episode has remained. It was not until April 2013 (that’s last year!) that the Scottsboro Boys were all finally exonerated by Alabama at a ceremony where Schreiber, already honoured with the key to Scottsboro, gave the keynote address.

Sat next to Schreiber, and with the assuring air of a performer who knows his material inside out, James T Lane exudes a gorgeously relaxed yet finely balanced poise as we talk. No stranger to the trans-Atlantic showbiz commute, this gifted hoofer not only wowed the crowds at the Young Vic with The Scottsboro Boys’ London debut, he had already spent most of that year at the London Palladium playing Richie in the acclaimed revival of A Chorus Line. His extensive experience, both on Broadway and across the USA belies his youthful 36 years and I for one would have loved to have seen his Tyrone in Fame, as the man’s voice and movement are simply astonishing.

James T Lane

As an African-American, Lane brings his own experiences to the show. Our discussions range across the racial prejudices experienced on both sides of the Atlantic, though whilst Britain is a multi-cultural nation that is still in pursuit of a more harmonious society, this country has only welcomed significant numbers of non-white immigrants since the latter half of the 20th century. America’s Statue of Liberty may well represent the open arms of a melting pot too all, but the African-American legacy that pre-dates the Civil War and stretches back to periods of horrendous slavery, provides a far more complex, painful history. 

My opening paragraph referred to The Scottsboro Boys as a minstrel show, but remember that it was this black-slapped buffoonery that dominated America’s theatres during the 19th century, promoting its insidiously acceptable culture of acceptable racism. Shamefully, it was only as late as 1978 that the BBC were still broadcasting The Black And White Minstrel Show across Britain in a primetime Saturday night slot. That The Scottsboro Boys spectacularly lampoons the minstrel genre, with a beautifully weighted gravitas from British white veteran actor Julian Glover as the show’s Interlocutor (think of a Variety Hall’s Chairman) only adds to the show’s painful poignancy.

Lane also remarks on the joy, of instead of going “up against” his African- American competitors in auditions, often pursuing the same opportunity, how The Scottsboro Boys has provided an opportunity for him to work (brilliantly, I might add) with some of his closest friends in the business. 

But Lane is only one of a number of Americans who have travelled back to the UK with the production. As well as having performed his roles in the Broadway show (and he plays, with remarkable conviction, one of the falsely accusing white women, Ruby Bates) he is joined by other Broadway veterans, including Brandon Victor Dixon, Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, all three of whom created their roles way back in 2010 at the Vineyard. Dixon’s Hayward Patterson is the show’s lead character whose struggles with the abuse of truth prove to be the show’s emotional fulcrum, whilst McClendon and Domingo play the minstrel-show regulars of Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, adopting all manner of acutely observed satirical characterisations.

The Young Vic Production

Whilst a five-star show has to deliver perfect performances from its actors, it is the creative talent behind the show that inspires the excellence and the pedigree of The Scottsboro Boys' team is faultless. As well as Kander and Ebb’s compositions that are structured around David Thompson’s book, it is Susan Stroman, the wunder-talent of recent years in musical theatre who has remained the director and choreographer of the show from the Vineyard to the Garrick. Hers is a remarkable commitment, for on the simplest of stages (this show has no techno-gimmicks whatsoever) the movement that she extracts from her company has to be seen to be believed.

Only on for 20 weeks The Scottsboro Boys will make you laugh and cry and the West End reviews will be out soon. Until then, these are my thoughts on the Young Vic production. The show truly is unmissable. See it and be humbled and amazed.

Runs at the Garrick Theatre until Saturday 21st February 2015

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