The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine black boys travelling through Alabama in 1931, pulled from their train, falsely accused of rape and convicted to the electric chair. The trial, which dragged on long after the accusation was revoked, became one of the widest known in US history and helped inspire the Civil Rights movement. The Scottsboro Boys, a Broadway hit, now transferred from the Young Vic into the Garrick, boldly puts the story to music.
After all, making light entertainment of so serious a tale seems daring to say the least. However, the sceptics out there can rest assured that behind the antics and the (many) laughs, there lies a poignant and heartfelt story. Musical theatre legends Kander and Ebb (of Cabaret and Chicago fame) brilliantly frame the action in a minstrel show, cleverly subverting the roles since historically, minstrelsy consisted of white actors ridiculing black people. Now the sheriff, the judge and the prison guard are played by members of the black ensemble in a delicate, historically aware twist. As a metaphor for institutional racism and the charade of justice, the show within the show allows for that essential extra layer that lets the narrative grow to its full potential. Ending on Rosa Parks not moving to the back of the bus, The Scottsboro Boys lands on its feet and powerfully reminds us of this recent history.
This production has it all. Wonderful performances take us through the Kafkaesque horrors, with the resilient Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) refusing to admit to the lie even if it means parole. More outrageously, Colman Domingo and Forrest McGlendon portray the minstrel fun in many guises of the white establishment. The choreography (Susan Stroman) is magnificent, and the wildly talented cast make absolutely sure you will forget to blink in order not to miss a glimpse.
Set and props (design by Beowulf Boritt) are ingeniously used and reused to produce trains, prisons and courtrooms in minutes. Even scene changes are a delight, with Haywood Patterson’s escape from prison displaying the most inventive interaction with the set I have seen. Some of the songs are extraordinarily catchy (‘Commencing in Chattanooga’) and will perhaps become classics in the musical repertoire.
The Scottsboro Boys is a worthy and valuable addition to the West End menu and will, I hope, run for a very long time. It is rare, but the importance of the subject matter and entertainment value fight for prominence in this dazzling spectacle. Go see for yourself – the experience will leave few unmoved, that’s for sure.
The Scottsboro Boys is playing the Garrick until 21 February 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Scottsboro Boys website. Photo by Johan-Persson.