‘Scottsboro Boys’ found no sweet home in Alabama

Despite the upbeat music, the title should clearly tell you that “The Scottsboro Boys” isn’t a happy musical. You’re more likely to leave the show with a heavy heart, aching for the nine lives that were utterly wasted by the prejudices in Alabama. Hurry down to the Ahmanson to see this little gem which plays until 30 June 2013.

This John Kander and Fred Ebb musical succeeds in presenting an abbreviated history of the trials of the nine boys who would become men while waiting for Alabama to catch up with public opinion, but this isn’t a bashing of the privileged White South. David Thompson’s book clearly states that life wasn’t so grand in the North either.

If you’re familiar with Kander and Ebb, who gave us “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” they liked dealing with social issues and yet manage to be entertaining in a show within a show format. In this case, they’ve taken on the minstrel, complete with blackface.

Does that give you pause? It shouldn’t. This is, after all, the last collaboration between Kander and Ebb. Ebb died in 2004 before this work was completely finished. Although having a short Broadway run, the musical received 12 Tony Award nominations in May 2011.

This isn’t the first time the story of the nine boys has been told. In 1976, there was a TV movie, “Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys” and in 2001 there was an Oscar-nominated documentary, “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.”

The actual incident put Scottsboro on the map. Scottsboro is 30 miles from Georgia and Tennessee. The city is about 55 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

On 25 March 1931, nine black boys were on a Southern Railway freight train between Chattanooga and Memphis. They weren’t the only ones on the train. There were also some white men and, more significantly, two white women. After a fight between the men broke out, the white males were off the train and the train was later searched and all the African American boys were arrested by  a posse. The posse also came upon the two white women: Ruby Bates and Victoria Price. The two women claimed they had been raped by the black boys.

When I say boys, these weren’t really men. The oldest was 19. The youngest was 13. The average age was 16. Most of them were illiterate. You must give credit to the sheriff, Matt Wann, because he prevented a mob from lynching the men, calling the governor who went the National Guard.

There were problems with the initial trial. All nine men would have been sent to the death chamber if it hadn’t been for the American Communists. Time hasn’t been kind to the Communists. In 1931, they were doing much better worldwide. The Soviet Union had just been formed in 1922. China wouldn’t go Communist until 1949.

Beowulf Boritt (No joking this is really his name) provides a minimalistic set. The set is framed by three portals. The first is set aright, but the two behind it are increasing askew. Otherwise, the set consists of different chairs–similarly sized and  easily stacked to represent a train, a jail and a courthouse.

The cast only has one white person, the Interlocutor, played by Emmy and Tony Award-winning Hal Linden. But don’t worry. This story isn’t told from his point of view. The rest of the cast are African American. The flamboyantly attired Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) are the hosts of the minstrel show. Except for the enigmatic lady (C. Kelly Wright) who begins the show with a large box on her lap as she sits down, the ensemble is all male.  They dress casually in blue jeans or denim overalls. They perform, walking with exaggerated movements and greetings. We’re told this is the “dawn of the Depression” and these nine boys are “about to begin the ride of their lives.”

We learn the stories of the Scottsboro Boys: Ozie Powell (Gilbert L. Bailey II), Olen Montgomery (David Basemore), Andy Wright (Christopher James Culberson), Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), Willie Roberson (Justin Prescott), Roy Wright (Justin Prescott), Clarence Norris (Cedric Sanders), Eugene Williams (Deandre Sevon) and Charles Weems (Christian Dante White).  Two of them will also play their accusers: Bates and Price to hilarious effect.

With the American Communist Party support, the nine prisoners get a new lawyer–a New York criminal defense lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz. While Leibowitz was competent, he also had several strikes against him that undoubtedly alienated the people in Alabama: He was Jewish. He was from the North. He was supported by Communists.

In 1913, Leo Frank’s lynching after having his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment had shown that in the South minorities were subject to a different set of rules. Born in Texas, Frank had been raised in Brooklyn and was also a Jew.

Susan Stroman’s direction and choreography gives us both old-time entertainment with modern dance flair. She also gets a creepily effective performance from Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson. Henry’s Patterson seamlessly transitions from an illiterate angry man to a white-pleasing buffoon in his original testimony. After all, they are not treated well in jail and one law man tells them “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

Patterson is the moral center of the play. Unlike fellow defendant Charles Weems and Clarence Norris who testified to things they hadn’t really seen, Patterson was unable to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit and profess remorse–even to free himself from fail. In prison, Patterson took the time to learn how to read and write. Yet the musical perhaps makes Patterson a bit too heroic. He did eventually die in prison, but not for what happened in Scottsboro. He would be convicted of murder in Detroit.

This isn’t a show filled with glamorous sexy women on the seamy side of 1920s  “Chicago” or their ragtag low-rent sisters in Berlin during Weimar Germany as in “Cabaret.” The lone lady is low key and yet her presence reminds us of the women–real and imagined, in the lives of the nine. The Scottsboro Boys had mothers, sisters and wanted to have lovers and wives.

In the 1930s and even much later, there was no sweet home in Alabama for minorities. The Scottsboro Boys are a testimony to justice in the South during those days. This 90-minute show, 10 minutes for each of the nine boys, is an entertaining flash of history. “The Scottsboro Boys” entertains by challenging our expectations, the incongruity of black men in this decade playing minstrels twists and reclaims the story of nine boys who became men and were dragged into the limelight of American legal and social history.

“The Scottsboro Boys” continues at the Ahmanson until 30 June 2013. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Dark on Mondays. $20 – $115. (213) 972-4400.

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