Thursday, 31 October 2013

Theatre review: The Scottsboro Boys

One of the last Kander and Ebb musicals gets its UK premiere at the Young Vic, with Broadway legend Susan Stroman reprising her role as director and choreographer (and bringing some of the original cast with her.) The people behind a much-loved musical charting the rise of the Nazis aren't afraid of a difficult subject and so The Scottsboro Boys unearths an unpleasant chapter in America's checkered civil rights history. Nine young black men passing through Scottsboro, Alabama on the train, end up spending much of the 1930s behind bars when, seemingly out of nowhere, they find themselves accused of the rape of two white women. Pressure from the North and funds from the Communist party result in countless retrials but the total lack of evidence, and even one of their accusers confessing that her testimony was made up, don't stop jury after jury finding them guilty.

The creatives have wrapped this egregious injustice within one of the more insidious ways black people were dehumanised in the 20th century: A minstrel show, the form of entertainment now most notorious for the use of white performers blacking up. But here, with the exception of Julian Glover's Interlocutor, all the minstrels actually are black, and taking on the roles of all the characters, male or female, black or white.

The Interlocutor is backed up by Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon,) henchmen who push the grotesque element of the minstrel show as far as it will go, with a succession of antagonists from guards to judges, although Tambo also takes on the more sympathetic New York Jewish lawyer who makes the boys' freedom his personal mission. The rest of the cast is made up of the nine boys themselves, who also take on a few other roles as needed, and a mysterious Lady (Dawn Hope) who silently observes their story.

The nine accused all give powerful performances, although attention gradually focuses more and more on the group's unofficial leader Haywood (Kyle Scatliffe,) the most steadfast (or stubborn, depending on your point of view) in his morality, and gifted with some of the show's standout songs like "Go Back Home" and "You Can't Do Me." Also standing out from the crowd are Adebayo Bolaji's restless Clarence, and Christian Dante White whose Charles also doubles as Victoria, one of their accusers who relentlessly sticks to her story; White strikes a nice line between playing the spoilt girl for comic effect and injecting a viciousness in there.

I found The Scottsboro Boys to be a very successful attempt to frame a serious and often upsetting story within an entertainment, without trivialising it on the one hand, or sacrificing showmanship on the other hand. Although perhaps its satirical construction didn't quite come across to everyone, judging by the Inappropriate Laughers sitting behind us, who seemed to be taking much of the minstrelsy‎ at face value. Musically though this has its share of foot-tappers and a couple of tunes stuck in my head on the way out, and it's performed with urgent energy.

The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson is booking until the 21st of December at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

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