The Scottsboro Boys: a look at the reviews

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The cast of The Scottsboro Boys, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. On the McGuire Proscenium Stage of the Guthrie Theater through September 25, 2010.

Photo credit: Paul Kolnik.

Last night I went to see “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Guthrie Theater. It’s a vibrant, high energy musical that deals with a tragic story, involving nine black boys unjustly convicted for a crime (to find out more details of the production, check out Euan Kerr’s story here).

It was an evening that provoked both a lot of laughter, and a lot of emotion, and it left me thinking. So this morning I took a look at some of the reviews that have popped up in the last week to see what others had written. Here are a few snippets I found interesting – to read the full reviews, just click on the name of the author:

Graydon Royce of the Star Tribune:

The piece is presented as a minstrel show — a freighted convention intrinsically fit to comment on the cruel whim of racism. Smiles are jagged with irony; winks taunt more than amuse.

The ensemble “Electric Chair” uses frenetic tap dancing to catalyze the panic of electrocution into a bizarre horror.

The singing and dancing, it must be said, are first rate.

…a brilliant invocation of a terribly sad story that nonetheless joyously commemorates nine fellow Americans.

And this from Quinton Skinner of the City Pages (note: his full review won’t be out until Wednesday):

In its immediate afterglow, I must say that I found it a surprise. Yes, it comes with a remarkable pedigree, the kind that generally insures at least a decent theater experience. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the show’s intelligence, ambiguity, and minor-key willingness to let pain and destruction coexist with acerbic asides and bleak humor.

…some of the happiest numbers are delivered by the performers through (intentionally) clenched teeth. And the periodic appearance of minstrel-show conventions does little to put us at ease. It feels as though the show’s creators were pushing against the feel-good expectations of the contemporary musical, having picked subject matter that at first glance seems perverse but ultimately evinces a ruthless purpose and logic.

Finally, this from Chris Hewitt: of the Pioneer Press:

…everything in the show is turned upside-down. Start with the format: It’s a minstrel show that is performed by black actors, instead of white actors wearing black make-up to depict gross, black stereotypes. And it’s the black actors’ white characters that are exaggerated buffoons, while the black characters — the “boys” of the title, ranging from 12 to 20, were unjustly convicted of rape in 1931 and never got a fair trail — retain their dignity.

“Scottsboro” has abundant humor and one toe-tapping tune after another, although you may stop the tapping to wonder if the actors really just said what you think they said.

…to its credit, “Scottsboro” entertains us, but it does not let us off easy. The fates of the characters are not sugar-coated (“No one knows what happened to me,” one of them tells us) and never even mentioned is the lone victory for the “boys”: Although their lives were wasted, the trials led to the U.S. law that all defendants are entitled to the competent lawyers the Scottsboro innocents never had.

These are all great and accurate reviews, but still I found something missing – something at the core of my experience, which I think is key to the success of the show.

Yes, as Graydon Royce stated in his review, it was a disturbing show to watch. But why? Where did the discomfort lie?

Here’s what I noticed: as a white person watching a show about the cruel treatment of nine young black men, there was a part of me that couldn’t help but feel guilty. Not for what happened back in the 1930s, but for what continues to happen everyday. Is the sentencing of young black men to an unfair punishment really that unfamiliar a story?

As the audience rose up at the end of the show to give the cast a standing ovation, I looked around me – the audience was almost entirely white. I thought – how much of our eagerness to applaud this work has to do with the quality of the entertainment, and how much of it has to do with our desire to be seen as the “good guys?”

It was interesting to note that as each actor took their turn bowing before the audience, one received markedly less applause than the others. That was the character of the “Interlocuter” – the one white person on stage – who represents power and authority and the status quo. That part was played by the only local actor in the cast, David Anthony Brinkley. I couldn’t help but think as he bowed soberly, that he represented all of us.

For me, the disturbing aspect of this show is not how it allows deep pain and humor to coexist on stage, but how it succeeds in pointing fingers at the audience, just as that same audience is laughing and applauding.

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