Chicago Theatre Review
“Scottsboro Boys” Revival Only Grander at Raven Theater
Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys – Raven Theatre
In 1931, nine African American teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. Their decades-long struggle for justice – and the labyrinth of racism, politics, and infighting that defined it – has been captured in spectacular fashion by Raven Theatre Mark Stein’s “Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys,” which has been revived at the theater after its 2015 Midwest premiere.
A satire told in the style of vaudeville, the power of “Scottsboro” comes from its unique presentation. Featuring direct narrative addresses to the audience, the play combines drama, music, and sensational dancing sequences in what is undoubtedly one of the freshest perspectives I have seen on race in America, one that simultaneously laughs at the extremes on display while acknowledging their underlying horror.
The show’s subject matter, though, would not come alive in its startling fashion without the proper artists, and “Scottsboro” features a true smorgasbord of talent. Director Michael Menendian, musical director Frederick Harris, and choreographer Kat Dennis guide their impeccable cast through multiple characters, musical styles, and tonal shifts in a remarkably seamless fashion, and rarely do you see actors tackle such weighty subjects with such aplomb. There is not a weak member in the cast, and I was particularly impressed with Kevin Patterson (the play’s main narrator, Patterson’s charisma is nearly palpable); Breon Arzell (his musical numbers as Joe Brodsky, which mock the propaganda ploys of the Communist Party, were dazzling displays of satire); and Andrew Malone (his shifts between Charlie Weems, the kind-hearted defendant, and Sam Leibowitz, the highly clever defense attorney, are a sight to behold).
America may label itself the “Land of the free and home of the brave,” but since the ’70s, it has steadily added another label to its notch – the land of mass incarceration. Although the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it makes up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and no group of Americans is more harmed by that percentage than African Americans, who are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of their white peers; indeed, one in four black men born since the late ’70s has been incarcerated. Those are all shameful, discouraging statistics, and Raven Theatre is to be applauded for tackling what is still an all-too-present problem in such a brave, artistically exhilarating fashion.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through August 27 by Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60660
Tickets are available by calling 773-338-2177 or by visiting www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.