The Scottsboro Boys is audacious. To take the horrendous tale of nine black boys, the youngest only 13, whose lives are wrecked by a lie and present it as a faux minstrel show takes supreme confidence and guts.
No surprise then that it was experienced musical creators Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) who attempted the feat.
This is theatre at its most uncomfortable, and that is nothing to do with the seating, though at nearly two hours straight through it helps to have a well-padded behind.
No, it is the contradiction between the surface wit and fun in many of the songs and their depressing subject matter that had me squirming in my seat.
That subject concerns one of America’s most shameful miscarriages of justice. In 1931 nine African American boys were pulled from a freight train for fighting. Soon after, rape accusations were made. Saved from a lynching, their trials and retrials played out for years, even after one of the accusers retracted her statement.
Kander and Ebb are no strangers to tackling tough subjects through set theatrical genres. We’ve seen it in the Nazi Germany-set Cabaret and the tale of murder and media manipulation Chicago. But singing and tap dancing about death by electric chair is almost as shocking as my choice of puns, though it is nothing compared to the genuinely jaw-dropping finale.
Beowulf Boritt’s sparse set, created entirely by reconfiguring the chairs used to lay out the minstrel show’s traditional semi-circle, focuses all attention on the performers and Susan Stroman’s striking choreography.
Though UK newcomer Kyle Scatliffe is striking in the central role of Haywood Patterson, a powerful, dignified and belligerently defiant defendant, and original cast members Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon have a delicious air of simmering evil as the minstrel show’s unlovable clowns who reverse the genre’s traditions by taking on most of the ‘white’ roles, it is the questions raised by the piece that embed themselves in the mind, rather than the songs or individual performances.
Should I laugh at the almost pantomimic representation of a white woman whose lie could condemn nine men to death? Should I enjoy a beautiful melody and harmony when the lyrics are so full of stereotypes and hate? Is the image of a child selling execution souvenirs – small dolls hung from a branch – morbidly amusing or sickeningly repulsive?
It’s these contradictions and the bleakness of the tale that make The Scottsboro Boys such a testing evening. It is, of course, these same contradictions and the remarkable story that make it so very worth seeing.