Music and lyrics: John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book: David Thompson; Direction and choreography: Susan Stroman
Young Vic, London, until 21 December
Though they were regarded as an important milestone in the history of US civil rights, I’m ashamed to say that, as I headed into the theatre, I didn’t know much about the true events behind The Scottsboro Boys. What I did know was that I was about to watch a bold production, because a musical is not the format I would have conjured to tell the story of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused of rape.
The boys, travelling on a Memphis-bound freight train, were arrested and accused of raping two white women. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, and all but one of the boys (who was 13) were convicted of rape and sentenced to death. That, however, only marked the start of their story. Issues such as the right to counsel and the exclusion of black people from juries helped to prevent the boys from being sent to the electric chair. But continuous guilty verdicts (even after one of the alleged victims appeared as a witness and denied that the rape occurred) meant their struggle for justice continued.
Race defined what happened on that fateful day in 1931 and is made prevalent in the musical’s storytelling. As Susan Stroman explains in the programme, the team decided to use the minstrel form (typically, minstrelsy used white actors portraying African-Americans in ways that were negative and disrespectful) as a way to frame the story and bring music into it, but turn the minstrel form on its head.
All the characters are played by black actors, with the notable exception of Julian Glover, who plays the Interlocutor and judge/governor of Alabama (James Bond fans will remember Glover as the villain Aristotle Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only). Stroman adds that it was common for minstrel shows to use a semicircle of chairs. Here, the actors use those chairs to powerful effect to convey the story, for example to create a prison cell (pictured).
The actors deliver incredible performances, conveying a wide range of emotions that manage to tug at the audience’s heart throughout. Singling out individuals seems unfair, as what makes this musical tick is the dynamic of the group.
I walked into the theatre knowing little about the story, but walked out wanting to tell everyone about the Scottsboro Boys. This is an important story everyone should know about, and judging by ticket sales (the show is almost sold out, so book quickly), this musical has given them a voice that is being heard loud and clear.
Monidipa Fouzder is a Gazette sub-editor