The finale number of Kander and Ebb’s 2010 musical (here receiving its UK premiere) sees the eponymous figures appear in minstrel blackface. Since the Boys in question were African-Americans, this combines a mild absurdity with a real sense of shock, notwithstanding the preceding two hours or so. But what has gone before ultimately “buys” this tactic as a grim summation of the real-life story. Nine young men and boys riding a freight train through Alabama in 1931 were accused of disorder, then also of rape, and were convicted and sent to death row, where they remained through several retrials. Their real crime, of course, was to be wilfully and persistently black in the South.
Kander, Ebb and director Susan Stroman give this chronicle of remorseless racism the most racist form they could find; these, after all, are the composers who gave us Cabaret and Chicago, but decorum is pushed even further here. The old minstrel shows contained all the grotesque reductivism and patronising contempt evidenced at virtually every stage of the Scottsboro Boys’ experiences. Sometimes the story is oversimplified: the arresting sheriff is shown here as an abusive redneck, whereas in reality he protected the boys from a lynch mob and was later murdered, possibly by the KKK; every trial after the first is skimmed over, but in 1933 a more scrupulous judge set aside the rape conviction of Haywood Patterson and ordered a retrial.
Patterson is the most forceful personality of the nine, and Kyle Scatliffe stands out from what is otherwise a multitasking ensemble; he has something of the air of Howard Rollins in the film version of Ragtime, a dignity corroded but unbending. Among the other Boys, James T. Lane doubles as the tragic Ozie Powell and Ruby Bates, the accuser who recanted; Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon morph from minstrel figures Mr Bones and Mr Tambo into a succession of lawmen, lawyers and the like; Julian Glover is the token white as the minstrel show’s interlocutor, various judges and the state governor.
The show is, however, so busy celebrating black men that it scarcely notices its preoccupation with black men; even the female accusers are played by members of the Boys. The company includes one female member, who gets a single line at the end; she plays Rosa Parks. It is the sole arguable blot on an audacious and thrilling evening.