Chicago Theatre Review
A Miscarriage of Justice
The Scottsboro Boys – Porchlight Music Theatre
In what would be a final collaboration, famed, award-winning Broadway composer John Kander and his lyricist partner, the late Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), together with book writer David Thompson, created this unusual, heartbreaking show that sheds light on an all but forgotten chapter of American history. Patterned in the style of a minstrel show, the musical opened seven years ago Off Broadway. It received enough critical acclaim that, following a short run at the Guthrie Theatre, the Kander and Ebb musical opened later on Broadway but closed by the end of 2010. It’s now achieved cult status among theatergoers.
The musical generated controversy because it employed the structure and style of a deplored theatrical style to tell this historical tale. However, despite the production being nominated for twelve Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it didn’t win a single accolade. Of the nine Drama Desk nominations, the only award went to Fred Ebb for Best Lyrics.
One criticism leveled at the show is that it’s definitely not a happy, feel-good musical. The production depicts a grave miscarriage of justice from our country’s shady past, yet ironically presents it as a high-spirited pageant of joyous song and dance. But audiences must be warned: this isn’t a cheerful tale. There’s very little rejoicing, revelry or romance. There’s no lovely, diverting chorus girls among the cast, as in most musicals. The company’s made up almost exclusively of men, all talented African American actors, except for the lone, white Interlocutor. Audiences, particularly Caucasian theatergoers, may even feel a little uncomfortable or embarrassed while watching this tragic, true incident played out as a high-stepping minstrel show. But that’s the point. This tragic incident from our country’s history is shameful, deplorable and absolutely unacceptable; but it’s a story that needs to be experienced.
The play creatively depicts a true event. It focuses on nine innocent young black men who, during the Great Depression, boarded a freight car, planning to head north to find work and a better life. With racial prejudice raging in the deep South, the group of young men are falsely accused of violating two white women. The one-act musical goes on to detail the abominable events that play out over the next several years.
The show opens on an elderly black woman (Cynthia Clarey) sitting on an empty stage. She’s holding a bakery box and is waiting, we later learn, for the bus. As she peers into the container, a memory is sparked and we’re suddenly transported back to 1931 Alabama. The Interlocutor (Larry Yando, in terrific, menacing form) enters introducing the cast in a rousing, toe-tapping cakewalk entitled “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”
We meet two terrific actors who morph into a variety of important, supporting characters: Denzel Tsopnang, as Mr. Bones, and Mark J.P. Hood, as Mr Tambo. Both actors are incredibly gifted song-and-dance men and display their strength and versatility throughout the play. Collectively they portray the sheriff, his deputy, several court clerks and various lawyers, including the noted Jewish attorney, Samuel Leibowitz. The real life titular characters, who collectively became known as the Scottsboro Boys, are portrayed by nine exceptional Chicago triple-threats.
The cast is led by one of Chicago’s true theatrical treasures, the talented James Earl Jones, II. He plays leading character Haywood Patterson who breaks our hearts with his touching story. Among his many gorgeous songs are the stirring “Nothin’” and “You Can’t Do Me.” The company sing, dance and act their way through this jaw-dropping, true story. The other Scottsboro Boys are deftly played by Travis Austin Wright, Maurice Randle, Stephen Allen, Jr., Izaiah Harris, Trequon Tate, Jerome Riley, Jr., Jos N. Banks and a very talented newcomer, 14-year-old Cameron Goode. Every actor masterfully creates a unique individual, each of whom easily arouse the audience’s empathy and admiration. In addition to playing two of the nine incarcerated young African American men, Jos N. Banks and Trequon Tate bring humor and spunk to their portrayal of Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the two white female “victims.”
The production is directed by Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., with power and intensity, never once giving in to the temptation of maudlin sentimentality. Florence Walker-Harris has choreographed this musical with polish and flair, emphasizing the strengths of this cast. Musical direction is provided by the always magnificent Doug Peck, while talented Aaron Benham provides keyboard accompaniment and conducts his five-member, offstage band with vigor. Andrei Onegin’s rustic-looking scenic design is practical and artistic, while Samantha Jones’ costumes range from jailhouse fatigue to minstrel show sparkle and color. Mr. Yando, especially, looks great as the single Caucasian character, symbolically dressed all in white.
This show treads carefully on sensitive historical events that, even today, may possibly reopen some wounds. It’s not a happy musical, which Kander and Ebb’s score sometimes belies, but it tells an important story about a sad travesty of justice. Every aspect of this polished, heartfelt production is spot-on and deserving of audiences who strongly oppose the backward steps that this country currently seems to be taking. We need to be ever reminded of who we are as Americans and where we’re headed in the future.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 3-March 12 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 773-327-5252 or by going to www.PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.