The Scottsboro Boys

By: Jared Bowen

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Wakeem Jones (center with tambourine) and members of the cast. From SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Scottsboro Boys. Photos: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

The tectonic plates of American politics underwent a seismic shift on November 8th with the election of Donald Trump as president. Ever since, there have been relentless aftershocks. For culture, ground zero for the quakes was the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Just days after the election, vice president-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton. During the curtain call, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon stepped forward to address Pence on behalf of the cast. “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us…” Dixon said in a brief statement imploring the new administration to endeavor for all Americans. The response from high atop Trump Tower was swift with the president-elect tweeting, “The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” And lo, the first shot in what may be a new battle in American culture wars was fired. “If you are the vice president-elect going to see a show about Alexander Hamilton and how an immigrant changed this country, you should be prepared,” says Paul Daigneault, the founder and producing artistic director of Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company. “I mean come on!”

Hamilton is no Mamma Mia! But somewhere in the stream of things, theater became the giant La-Z-Boy recliner with the built-in cooler that you curl up in. At least according to the president-elect who also tweeted that “The theatre must always be a safe and special place.” Well, not according to the Greeks who as far back as 425 bc were taking aim at politicians. But rocketing back to the present day, SpeakEasy Stage Company is remounting one of the most provocative shows it’s ever presented. And for better or for worse, its director and stars agree that The Scottsboro Boys is a very different production pre- and post- election. “You have this really powerful show people are responding to and then November 8th happens and it goes on to another level—almost like a warning,” Daigneault says.

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Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent. From SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Scottsboro Boys. Photos: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

The Scottsboro Boys premiered off-Broadway in 2010—a final collaboration between Kander and Ebb. They were the legendary writing team who gave us Cabaret and Chicago—deliciously enjoyable musicals masking ice-cold themes of anti-Semitism and misogyny, respectively. In The Scottsboro Boys, they took on the true story of nine African American teenagers from Alabama falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. But Kander and Ebb recounted their grim fates through the prism of a minstrel show in which the majority of the cast eventually dons blackface. It’s a brilliant, if not utterly devastating trope that allows present-day audiences to see the boys as 1931 bystanders did: as nothing more than delegitimized figures unworthy of any humanity. “Looking at the story of The Scottsboro Boys, you can’t look at it and not see the parallels to what’s happening now,” Daigneault says. “The profiling of African American men and the terrible events that have happened in the past year make [the show] visceral and palpable.”

SpeakEasy originally presented the show this fall, but after the election, found a need to return it to the stage where it runs through January. The show was nearing the end of its original run when the presidential election happened. Cast members say they found it both invigorating and discomfiting to be onstage for the first post-election performance. “I thought how are we going to put on blackface in Trump’s America,” says actor Maurice Emmanuel Parent. “It was so much more difficult to tell the story.” But the audience support was loud and rousing he says. “I will never forget that experience for the rest of my life. I was charged in a way I was never charged before.”

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De’Lon Grant. From SpeakEasy Stage’s production of The Scottsboro Boys. Photos: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots.

Cast member De’Lon Grant says the musical is no longer so much a show as a call to action. “Race is not something that we’re over,” he says. “If we don’t do something about it, we’re going to implode.” Wearing blackface made Grant grotesquely aware of the ways African Americans were seen in the eyes of early 20th-century white audiences. And there are threads to today. “I play both roles in life sometimes. That’s the most disturbing part for me. I’m 6’1″, I walk fast in the world. I know what my blackness and presence means,” Grant says. “I find myself being overly smiley or overly present because I know what I look like. I know what that means.” But where he finds friends having idle thoughts about moving to Canada to escape the escalating tensions a looming Trump presidency has wrought, Grant focuses on theater. “You don’t get into the arts and performing for money,” he explains. “You get into it because it’s bigger than you. There’s a purpose…it’s the one thing I can do to affect change.” Which is to ensure that in the case of The Scottsboro Boys, past is not prologue.

Jared Bowen is host of the weekly television series, Open Studio with Jared Bowen and WGBH’s Emmy Award–winning executive arts editor.

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