You don’t know passion until you talk to Catherine Schreiber about The Scottsboro Boys. It’s a bold statement to make, I know, but twice in the space of our half an hour chat, the actress, writer and producer – she’s quick to emphasise that she shares lead producer duties with Paula Marie Black and the Young Vic – has to hold back the tears.
It possibly doesn’t help that, even though we’re tucked away in a bijou anteroom in the Garrick Theatre’s auditorium, Kander and Ebb’s provocative score drifts teasingly towards us as the new London cast rehearses on stage.
Before The Scottsboro Boys premiered off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, the story of nine black boys whose lives were destroyed when they were falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama had been forgotten by – or never told to – many in the US. The power of Kander and Ebb’s musical, directed by Susan Stroman, and the acclaim it received, changed that. Its profile even helped to achieve pardons for all nine of the boys, 70 years after they were first accused.
As the production, which played to sell-out houses at the Young Vic last year, opens at London’s Garrick Theatre, Schreiber talks to us about the remarkable truths behind the musical and why it is the most important show she has ever worked on.
I was given the script for The Scottsboro Boys before it reached Broadway. I read it on the Friday. On Wednesday I went to see it in Minneapolis. It was so powerful and moving and life-changing that I had to get on board.
For me, this show was not about making money. This show is a passion of my life. I think it’s the most important thing I’ve ever been involved in. I want it to make money for my investors, but this was a show that I was going to do no matter what. It wasn’t going to come to London, so I said “I’m going to make it happen” because I believed it needed another chance.
Wherever I go I talk to people; in restaurants, in the elevator, in ticket booths. I’m not your typical producer. I get involved at every level. I embarrass my family. I had another show which was about a duck and I would walk this plastic duck in Times Square. I will do anything.
I was looking for gifts when we opened on Broadway. I found the Scottsboro Boys Museum which had just opened. I called and I spoke to Sheila Washington. She told me how in 2004, when she put a plaque in town to commemorate the Scottsboro Boys, the KKK were threatening her and the FBI had to be called in. I couldn’t believe this was happening now.
When Sheila was a young girl she found the book written by Haywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro Boys; he escaped from prison and he wrote the book. She found it under her parents’ bed. At this point, blacks were not supposed to talk about this in Alabama. In fact, even today, they really don’t want the museum there. It was her mission to keep the story of the Scottsboro Boys alive. I said “I want to help you” so I became involved.
I actually spoke to [Scottsboro Boys defence lawyer] Samuel Leibowitz’s daughter. She said she remembered when she was five they all went down and their lives were threatened by the KKK. Her father told her never to go back to the South again.
For a lot of older African Americans, it was too close. In London, you can just look at it as an example of extreme injustice. I think that appeals to humanity on a bigger level. It’s not something that is too painful to see.
We knew we couldn’t go directly to the West End because it was too risky. We needed a place that would know how to nurture this kind of show. The Young Vic does brilliant shows, David Lan and his team are incredible. The theatre is perfect because you see the show and you come out and there’s some place to talk about it. They do this kind of work. Their audience was the perfect audience for the show.
I love London. I’m so happy that London has praised us. The Critics’ Circle Award win was pretty amazing. It was very meaningful. We’ve gotten this remarkable support. I think we have an even better show now. I think this theatre is perfect for it. Now I just want it to be sold out every night like it was at the Young Vic. I want people to talk about it, and think about it.
Colman [Domingo] and Forrest [McClendon] and Brandon [Victor Dixon] were there from the beginning. They helped create those roles. I wasn’t going to come to London without those anchors. I wanted to make sure we had people who knew it inside out, who were the leaders, but also who had the history. British actors can’t have that history with America that the Americans can experience. We now have this great combination. And getting 11 black actors on stage; when else do you get that, singing, dancing, playing these incredible roles? It should be much more often. This is really something I hope London embraces in a big way.
Racism still exists. We still have people who feel this way. We have a black president, but there are death threats. Fear and hatred gets taught. Jews are being threatened again. It’s scary what’s going on. That’s why shows like this have to be seen.
I did Cabaret at Yale. If you had told me then, one day John Kander is going to be thanking you and will bless you for taking his show to London, I’d have said you’re insane. Life is amazing.
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