Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace combine for the hard hitting ‘Scottsboro Boys Musical’
The time was March 25, 1931 in the deep south and the beginning of the Great Depression. The Jim Crow laws that segregated the races were enforced with severity that included frequent beatings and lynchings in order to “control” the black population.
On the Southern Railway line a group of nine black youths ranging in age from 13 to 20 were riding the rails in the hopes of finding work on the Mississippi River. Also on the train were several white southern males and two white female prostitutes. A fight broke out as the white hobo passengers tried to rid the black hobo passengers of what they considered a “whites only” train. In the ensuing melee the whites were forced off the train near Paint Rock Alabama where they contacted the local sheriff who had the train stopped and all nine black passengers arrested for assault.
The Scottsboro Boys as they became to be known as included Haywood Patterson (age 18), Clarence Norris (age 19), Charlie Weems (age 19), brothers Andy Wright (age 19) and Roy Wright (age 12), Olin Montgomery (age 17), Ozie Powell (age 16), Willie Roberson (age 16) and Eugene Williams (age 13).
Also on the train were two white female prostitutes, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates who in order to avoid arrest on the Mann Act claimed that the nine youths had raped them. Even though a doctor found no sign of rape and later one of the women recanted her testimony the nine boys were tried and sentenced to death. It would take 19 years and numerous trials including being taken all the way up to the Unite States Supreme Court before the last Scottsboro Boy was free of prison. As a result, it added to the beginning of the civil rights movement that forced the south to reexamine its laws concerning a fair court system for all.
Numerous books, songs, feature films, documentaries and a Broadway musical have resulted from this travesty of justice that was considered by many to be one of the first organized fight against the South’s Jim Crow Laws.
The show opened on Broadway in 2010 receiving 12 Tony Award nominations but winning none. It lasted only two months, due it is thought to the fact that people had trouble dealing with the subject matter and the Minstrel Show format. During its run it had its share of protesters who simply did not understand that the configuration of the musical emphasized the pathos dealt to these young men.
The Beck Center in cooperation with Baldwin Wallace University Music Theater Program is currently producing “The Scottsboro Boys Musical” in the Mackey Theater with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by David Thompson. The show is directed and choreographed by Jon Martinez.
For those seeing the show for the first time you will be in for a bit of a shock as “The Scottsboro Boys Musical” is performed in the vein of a Minstrel Show complete with black face, tap dancing, banjo, tambourine and an Interlocutor (Master of Ceremonies) who encourages the black participants to perform while smiling away. In all there are 17 songs and two reprises all expertly done by the cast. Although the show is billed as being just under two hours without an intermission the time flies by with snazzy song and dance numbers but just under the surface you can feel the pain.
In these modern times with a racist President and dubious Senate combined with atrocities being performed against blacks by law enforcement officers, anti-Semitism (the first true defense lawyer for the group was a Jewish New York attorney), racial profiling and the lack of black, female and Asian performers being recognized on award shows this is a performance for the present although the actions took place nearly a hundred years ago. The entire cast works extremely hard to propel the story line through song, dance and dialogue and do an amazing job working with each other.
You can bill this show as an intense historic drama played out through the most nocuous manner possible (i.e. a Minstrel Show) that illustrates the truths and pathos far better than any other manner could. It is a show that will leave you angry but wiser with the final scene bringing it all home.
“Scottsboro Boys” runs through February23, 2020 in the Mackey Theatre at the Beck Center for the Arts located at 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, Ohio. For tickets and information visit www.beckcenter.org or call (216) 521-2540.