We do it with food, why not on the stage? The combination of conflicting tastes or styles can be immensely powerful – and so it proves with The Scottsboro Boys, a grim story packaged by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson into a jaunty musical framework. In this 2010 musical, they tell the tale of nine black youths wrongly convicted of rape in 1930s Alabama and do so through the upbeat, finger-snapping, toe-tapping vehicle of a minstrel show – itself a discredited form. In Susan Stroman’s dazzlingly delivered staging (the show’s UK premiere, first seen at the Young Vic last year) the impact is both elating and shocking.
It’s a shameful tale. In 1931, nine youths (the youngest only 13) riding a freight train were stopped at Scottsboro, Alabama, falsely accused of raping two white women, convicted in short order and thrown in jail to await the electric chair. It took six years, a protracted campaign and several retrials to get four of the youngest released in 1937. One man, Haywood Patterson, was to die in jail two decades later.
It was an inspired choice to tell this saga of bigotry and crooked justice in the form of a minstrel show, a grotesque entertainment in which, traditionally, white men blacked up to parade black stereotypes. Here a black ensemble ironically reverses the process, playing the nine youths but also a range of white figures. The only actual white man on stage is the master of ceremonies (a chillingly jovial Julian Glover), who gradually loses his grip on proceedings.
Audacious and troubling, it is delivered with brilliant precision here. Tap-dancing through a number about the electric chair, harmonising in a spiritual that slips in a line about lynching, the cast perform with tremendous verve and handle Stroman’s choreography with split-second timing. But they also zip from ensemble to individuals, as they trace the separate tragedies of each young man.
Friction – between truth and justice, between story and style – runs through the show, with even the performances of Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, fizzingly exuberant as Bones and Tambo, tugging in a different direction to that of Brandon Victor Dixon’s quietly dignified Patterson. And finally a figure (Dawn Hope) whose silent, watchful conduct has been in complete contrast to the bustle around her takes centre stage. No singing, no dancing, but this lady and her tired feet will change history. She is Rosa Parks.
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