The trials and tribulations of the nine young African Americans known as the Scottsboro Boys were a cause celebre for many of the activists involved in civil rights and left-wing causes during the Great Depression, and the case remains a touchstone for racial injustice in America.
In an interview backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where Center Theatre Group’s production of the musical The Scottsboro Boys opens tonight, librettist David Thompson describes the 1931 incident in northeast Alabama that set off a train of tragic events that still reverberate:
“In this case nine boys’ lives were completely destroyed. The boys were on a train, they didn’t know each other [for the most part], there were lots of people on the train, there had been some fighting on the train. The train was stopped right out of Scottsboro [Alabama]…They [authorities] gathered up the nine boys.
“They also gathered up two [white] women dressed as boys. Those two women [Ruby Bates and Victoria Price] were just hustling… they were mill workers, young girls looking to survive. They were in overalls and they were going to be thrown into jail, too… for the Mann Act, for prostitution. In order to get out, they did the best they could — they lied… They cried that they had been raped.”
In this true-life story, composer John Kander and Fred Ebb re-discovered a quintessential theme found throughout their musicals, Thompson says. “We thought what an interesting story to tell, because here they are, they’re trapped, they have to get out and they don’t have power. Right there, that’s a very Kander and Ebb story. You look at Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman – they’re people who are trapped in these circumstances. And they go to extraordinary measures to try and escape or to make something better of that situation they’re in. I think that’s what drew John and Fred to the material. And off we went.”
Kander and Ebb created The Scottsboro Boys — their final joint work (before Ebb died in 2004) — with their longtime collaborators, book writer Thompson and director Susan Stroman, who also directed Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash The Producers. In Scottsboro the creative collective tapped into, deconstructed and subverted stage stereotypes and show biz traditions, including blackface, minstrel shows and nostalgic Stephen Foster-type Southern ballads called “plantation melodies.” In upending and spoofing theatrical tropes the team baffled some audience members — Scottsboro’s Broadway run lasted only 49 performances.
Thompson concedes, “It’s not typical theater fare… it’s a very difficult piece of theater. If you were going to choose between this and Mamma Mia!, chances are in the world of Broadway the audience would have preferred” the Abba-inspired musical. However, Scottsboro — which had originated Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in early 2010 — scored 12 Tony nominations (winning none) and eight Drama Desk nominations (winning for Ebb’s lyrics).
The creative task facing the collaborators was how to take history, racism and actual personages and dramatize their saga, expressing all this in an entertaining way. “We deal with the facts and history [but] what we are trying to do here is create compelling theater,” Thompson stresses. “So the way we tell that story is the most important… Fred would always say, ‘you can never pull back from tough material. You can never try and soften it or in any way make it easier for an audience by taking the edges off of it. But at the same time you must find ways to entertain the audience’.
“If we’ve done our job right,” Thompson added, “you’ll find yourself laughing, being drawn into the story. There’ll be moments where you’re thinking ‘I’m loving this melody’ — nobody write a more beautiful melody than Kander and nobody writes a funnier lyric than Fred. But at the same time, [as in] Cabaret, you’ll find yourself also wondering, ‘what were we thinking?’ Because some of the material is incredibly hard-hitting…So, it’s the balance between the two — I think that’s the genius of their work. They take you to a place, they seduce you to follow them to a place where you would normally not want to go, and all the while you’re being entertained.”
While it may have been true for the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon that “the play’s the thing,” for Kander, Ebb and Thompson one could argue the story was the thing. “At the end of the day you’re always looking to tell a great story that’s a great situation,” says Thompson, who attended Medill’s School of Journalism at Northwestern University and studied to be a lawyer. “In The Scottsboro Boys, to write it required a lot of the same work you’d do as a reporter if you were telling a real story — because we were telling a real story. There was a lot of work done, getting information, actual information, about the boys, the cases, the trials, what was happening in the country at the time. There are a lot of different ideas represented here, not only just about the nine boys themselves and the trials, but some of the things happening in the country…
“When you go into a historical story like this, so much of what you want to tell is already there; you don’t have to invent it, to fabricate it. A lot of the events in the story, some of the more outrageous things people say in the course of the play, are actually from or were inspired by actual things people did say or things that actually happened.”
The story has received previous stage treatments — even on Broadway, in John Wexley’s 1934 dramatization of the case, They Shall Not Die, in which Ruth Gordon played the witness who admitted she had lied. In 2002, LA’s Fountain Theatre presented Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, by Mark Stein, with music and lyrics by Harley White Jr., directed by the late Ben Bradley. It used a vaudeville format to tell the story.
Why bring this 80-year-old story back now? Actually, the genesis of the project began around 2000, Thompson explains. “John, Fred and Stro and I had worked on many projects, all the way back to 1986, when we did [the revival of] Flora the Red Menace together. We were always looking for projects to work on. So whether it was that or And the World Goes ’Round or Steel Pier — I worked with John and Fred on [the revival of] Chicago – we always looked for a project to do together. Because we loved to work together. Working with John and Fred is always about the collaboration and being together and coming up with stories to tell…
“We wanted to find a true story,” as opposed to “stories that are more fantastical in nature. We thought let’s find a story that has a meaty subject to it. We decided to look at court cases of the 20th century…and the Scottsboro Boys came up almost immediately, because we had been in this train before, with Flora the Red Menace and Steel Pier — both stories that took place in the Depression. That, coupled with the fact that Kander remembered the story of the Scottsboro Boys — as a little boy he remembered seeing the stories and headlines in the paper.
“Suddenly it became something we were drawn to. The more we investigated it, we saw that not only was it a story of so many disparate forces in America — civil rights, the North, the South, communism, the growth of the NAACP, all these bigger issues — in the middle of it was the story of nine boys,” who, due to circumstances beyond their control were cornered, like many Kander and Ebb characters.
What also intrigued the quartet was that before FDR was elected and the New Deal tackled the worst havoc wrought by the stock market crash, 1931 was “an extraordinary time,” Thompson says. In that year, “there’s so many things coming together. Over all of this is the beginning of the Depression. The entire country is looking for something, they’re trying to move forward. So the stakes are so high. On top of that you’re looking at a period of time that has its own distinct sound and music, in the way dance is used, and the juxtaposition of things that have great power, the way a story resonates for the public. That year just had so much in it; we thought, ‘yeah, we’ve got to stay here; we’ve got to look at this time’.”
Thompson identifies “the pivotal point in their story” as “what happened when somebody lies. That moment where somebody, for whatever reason of self-preservation, they feel they have to, they lie and what happens? In this case nine boys’ lives were completely destroyed…When that lie happens, bad things happen.”
As the nine innocent youths faced the electric chair, they continued to fight to clear their names. “There was a lot of effort to try and see who could represent these boys and do it most effectively,” Thompson says. “There was a little bit of a battle between the NAACP and the Communist Party to see who could properly represent the boys, and it was the Communist Party who actually was able to — took on the case and hired Samuel Leibowitz to represent the boys…He was not a Communist, but he felt this was something he could do that was an important case, that he wanted to make a difference.”
The Romanian-born Leibowitz was a New York Jew, and anti-Semitism and anti-Yankee sentiment play an integral role in the Southern bigotry that informs the show. This is particularly noticeable in the song “Financial Advice,” wherein the Attorney General sings — over Leibowitz’s strong objections — that Ruby Bates recanted her testimony because she was paid off with “Jew money,” which is taken from the record. Thompson states that in researching court transcripts and other documents, “the language itself was either repugnant or racially driven.” But “if it’s helpful and if it heightens the stakes or the emotions, we’ll use it.” (Both Kander and Ebb were Jewish and Cabaret, of course, takes place as the Nazis rise to power in Weimar Germany.)
The musical unfolds by subverting minstrelsy, which caused bewilderment for some theatergoers and a protest outside of the Lyceum Theater in 2010 during Scottsboro’s brief run on the Great White Way. After a recent preview at the Ahmanson, an Asian-American woman expressed outrage that blacks played white roles and males female parts, complaining this “trivialized” the real-life tragedy.
Thompson explains the reasoning behind the creators’ choice of form in the play: “During the research…there was an article that talked about how the trials…had a feeling of a minstrel show. We thought that’s really interesting, because you’re taking an essentially extremely racist art form to tell a very racist story. What happens when you bring those two together? And how can you make that theatrical? In Kander and Ebb’s work they pull from that — they find it very generative to go in and find that art, to use that art form. To an extent, everything in Cabaret was in a cabaret number. In Chicago everything was in vaudeville. Suddenly, we have a music form we can pull from that can begin to inform how we use music and how we tell our story and give this story a dramatic edge that on one level is very entertaining and on another level very unsettling.”
Stereotypes are often fabricated as narratives by outsiders to describe, demean and demonize members of another group. During the 19th century and early 20th century, white entertainers with cork-blackened faces depicted people of African ancestry as buffoonish, among other things. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation portrayed African Americans as brutes, over-sexualized and dim-witted. From minstrelsy to movies, including those with Stepin Fetchit-type caricatures, the negative imagery was generally conjured up by white performers and storytellers who misappropriated and misrepresented an embodiment of a minority for the dominant white-majority culture of ticket buyers.
Thompson argues that by using an all-black cast (except, in the Ahmanson run, for veteran Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Hal Linden of Barney Miller fame, who plays the Interlocutor) and only one woman — C. Kelly Wright as the Lady — the musical allows the disempowered to “take control.” And as the storytellers, the wronged Scottsboro Boys are finally given the opportunity to tell their side of the story, as they saw it. Thompson adds that since leaving the Great White Way Scottsboro is “playing to the audiences that come to the theater ready to be challenged and see something unexpected.”
Asked how four white people could tell an essentially black story, Thompson responds: “You can’t — I mean you can. But you have to look at how you tell that story in the most truthful, authentic and responsible way possible, so that you’re really embracing what is the story. It takes a little bit more time, a little bit more sensitivity. And the other part to balance this out is you have to work with your actors and understand what they can bring to it as well. Which is a continuation of that whole collaboration story.
“We can only give them the story. They then have to own and draw from their own experiences. We can’t say we know what these experiences are to really feel. But we can work with them and create the piece to make sure it’s as honestly represented as possible…”
He says he can’t claim to treat the material “the same way a black playwright would…and I would be foolish to think that I could. But what I could do is find what was that story and tell it as authentically as possible. And if that was what I could accomplish, then there was no reason to be afraid of it.”
The redemption process for the wrongfully convicted Scottsboro Boys gathers steam. In April, Alabama’s state legislature passed a bill to permit posthumous pardons in the case, which Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law. Pending completion of bureaucratic paperwork requirements, the nine unjustly convicted men, whose lives were robbed from them, will be officially cleared. Democratic Rep. John Robinson introduced a resolution that was passed by the Alabama legislature in April declaring that the Scottsboro Boys “were the victims of gross injustice” and are considered to be formally exonerated. However, five of their burial sites are still unknown.
But what is known is that — along with the activism of Shelia Washington, founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center in Scottsboro — the musical by Kander, Ebb, Stroman and Thompson will help keep this grave miscarriage of justice in the public eye — and ear.
The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Opens tonight. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Thu matinees, 2 pm, on June 20 and 27. No Sunday evening performances on June 23 and 30. Closes at the June 30 matinee. Tickets: $20-115. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.
**All The Scottsboro Boys production photos by Craig Schwartz.
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