Start with a story that needs telling; pick a unique, unexpected method to tell it; recruit a dynamite cast and a first-rate production team; stir; and serve! Theatre Raleigh’s production of The Scottsboro Boys is guaranteed to entertain, to impress, to stimulate, to motivate ….
The Story Is One of Tragic Injustice:
Nine well-intentioned young African-American men were in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1931. Looking for jobs, they had “hopped a freight train” and were optimistically on their way. Unbeknownst to them, two young white women were travelling in another car on that same train. All nine young men were falsely accused of raping these women, arrested, tried, and found guilty — found guilty initially and again in a series of eight retrials (even after one of the alleged victims had recanted her testimony).
The result was nine ruined lives. The “luckiest” among The Scottsboro Boys spent “only” six years in prison; the rest were incarcerated much longer. Indeed, one remained in prison for 17 years.
The Storytelling Method Is Unique:
The Scottsboro Boys is a minstrel show, a form that uses song and dance, along with over-the-top acting and cornball humor, to tell a story that is usually nonsensical and untrue.
With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by David Thompson, The Scottsboro Boys appropriates this form that had traditionally been overtly racist and blatantly denigrating and turns it on its head by employing two small twists: (1) All but one of the actors are black (rather than the traditional white-men-in-blackface); and (2) The story it tells is true and anything but nonsensical.
The meta-dramatic effect is, the piece cries out to its audience, insisting that, while this one incident is, indeed, a travesty, it is but a small piece in the giant puzzle of our history and current society.
Director and choreographer Gerry McIntyre delivers a fast-paced spectacle, with crisp dance numbers that are executed with precision by a tightly organized cast. Plus, music director Joanna Li coaxes a variety of musical styles from a flawless six-piece band and rich melodies with delightful harmonies from all 13 actors.
Side Note: In addition to spotlighting overwhelmingly racist mores, the story points to elements of anti-Semitism and to the divisive tactic of encouraging an “us-versus-them” attitude, a tactic that is as popular among demagogues today as it was in years gone by.
The Cast Is Stellar:
Traditionally, minstrel shows have what I would describe as an “internal cast” (that acts out the story), along with a few “front people” who set the stage, comment on the action, and enter into the story as “key” characters.
In this case, the “internal cast” consists of nine actors playing the nine young men (with some of the actors occasionally portraying additional characters). All nine portray characters that are historically accurate. That is, the individual personalities of the real-life people emerge as pieces of the whole.
The front people include Dave Robbins as the blustering “Mr. Bones” and Jason Daniel Rath as “Mr. Tambo,” who continually kowtows to Mr. Bones, but is menacingly overbearing as he interacts with the other characters. Both actors shine.
In the stock part of “The Interlocutor,” David McClutchey exudes the showmanship inherent to the role as well as the expected air of superiority. Aya Wallace displays her wide range of talent in the role of “The Lady,” sometimes working into the internal story and the dance routines as well as functioning as a “table of contents,” supplying titles to the various “chapters” of the story.
Every member of the “internal cast” does an outstanding job, and every one of their characters deserves to be remembered and memorialized. They include: Darius Jordan Lee as Haywood Patterson; JaJuan Cofield as Andy Wright; Sai Graham as Willie Roberson; Melvin Gray, Jr. as Ozie Powell (and also Ruby); Chris J. Helton as Clarence Norris; Tyrone Kiaku as Glen Montgomery; Michael Lassiter as Eugene Williams; Trey McCoy as Charles Weems (and also Victoria); and Gerard M. Williams as Roy Wright. Expect to see these actors’ names again, because of their energy, talent, and dedication.
A Few of the Many Delightful Details Include:
Thanks to sound designer Eric Alexander Collins, we hear an invisible jail door slam shut; and lighting designer Christina Munich augments the verisimilitude of the jail with lighting and shadows. Property designer Kiernan Bastien’s attention to detail includes the full-sized newspapers of days-gone-by; and scenic designer Chris Bernier’s set includes three prosceniums, which are constructed with skewed angles, thereby accentuating the skewed injustice of the story and the “story-within-a-story-within-a-story” nature of this show.
Humor that would usually be “rim shot worthy” is intentionally buried (and denied its rim shot), so as to undercut the form as well as the intent. Plus, a pair of short scenes involving a lady and a newspaper combine to speak volumes. Enough said!
From the Department of Picky-Picky: I was impressed by the choice to use of one of the abovementioned functions of the role of “The Lady” — a sort of “table-of-contents,” but I felt that it could be tweaked in order to make it more noticeable and thereby more functional.
Theatre Raleigh encourages audience members to “prepare” for the show. Their website includes links to prefatory material: https://theatreraleigh.com/the-scottsboro-boys/, and they make copies of some of this information available in the lobby prior to the show.
The program also includes a “TAKE ACTION!” insert with suggestions “If you want to take action after seeing this show ….”
The Scottsboro Boys plays Wednesday-Sunday, through Sunday, Sept. 15th. I heartily recommend it!
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 6th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts Review review by Susie Potter: http://www.triangleartsreview.com/home/theatre-raleighs-the-scottsboro-boys-is-bold-brave-and-powerful; Sept. 5th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9534; Sept. 5th Raleigh, NC Talkin’ Broadway: Raleigh/Durham review by Garrett Southerland: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/rd/rd76.html; and Sept. 1st Cary, NC RDU on Stage interview with Moses T. Alexander Greene, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/ep-35-behind-the-story-of-theatre-raleighs-production-of-the-scottsboro-boys-a-case-of-racial-injustice-then-now/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 7th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/09/theatre-raleigh-hits-a-home-run-with-the-scottsboro-boys/.)
NOTE: On its website, Theatre Raleigh writes that this show is “Appropriate for Audiences 16+, due to Languages and Adult Situations.”
The Scottsboro Boys (nine black youths who were charged with raping two white women and tried in 1931): https://www.britannica.com/event/Scottsboro-case (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottsboro_Boys (Wikipedia).
The Scottsboro Boys (2010 Off-Broadway, 2010 Broadway musical, and 2014 West End): http://scottsboromusical.com/ (official website), https://www.mtishows.com/the-scottsboro-boys (Music Theatre International), http://iobdb.com/Production/4983 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-scottsboro-boys-488110 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scottsboro_Boys_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: https://theatreraleigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/The-Scottsboro-Boys-Study-Guide.pdf (from the Broadway production).
John Kander (music and lyrics): http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/2151 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-kander-6837 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0437218/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Kander (Wikipedia).
Fred Ebb (music and lyrics): http://fredebbfoundation.org/ (Fred Ebb Foundation), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/2152 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/fred-ebb-5654 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0247939/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Ebb (Wikipedia).
David Thompson (book): http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/2149 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/david-thompson-5013 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Thompson_(writer) (Wikipedia).
Gerry McIntyre (director and choreographer): http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/12762 (Internet Off-Broadway Database) and https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/gerry-mcintyre-72769 (Internet Broadway Database).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.