News / USA

Broadway Musical Resurrects Grim Racial Event

'The Scottsboro Boys' recounts trial of black teens accused of raping two white women

'The Scottsboro Boys' is a Broadway muscial which recounts the 1930s case in which nine African-American teenagers were unjustly accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
'The Scottsboro Boys' is a Broadway muscial which recounts the 1930s case in which nine African-American teenagers were unjustly accused of raping two white women in Alabama.

Multimedia

Audio

A new musical which focuses on a shameful episode in American racial history just opened on Broadway.

"The Scottsboro Boys" delves into an infamous 1930s legal case in which nine African-American teenagers were unjustly accused of raping two white women in the southern state of Alabama. The trials and appeals dragged on for almost a decade and ended up in the Supreme Court twice. The circus surrounding the case captured national attention.

The Broadway production features a score by legendary songwriters Kander and Ebb - who also created "Cabaret" and "Chicago." But can a musical based on such a grim and emotional subject be successfully made into popular entertainment?

'The Scottsboro Boys'

On a recent Saturday afternoon, students from Harlem's Academy for Social Action decided to find out. Their excursion to see "The Scottsboro Boys" was part of a program called Open Doors, which introduces New York City high school kids to Broadway shows. After devouring the study guide, 17-year-old Samantha Henry couldn't wait for the show to start.

"Oh, I was excited to see it because of the format of the show," she says. "Like, they put it so it's entertaining, but at the same time you get to get the real racist content of the 1930s."

Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz meets with his clients in Scottsboro, Alabama (1933).
Defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz meets with his clients in Scottsboro, Alabama (1933).

According to director Susan Stroman, the creators of the musical took their cue from lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004, before the show was completed.

"He said, 'You know, if you we don't make this show entertaining, no one's gonna listen to this story. It has to be entertaining.'"

But it's entertainment that's meant to be subversive. "The Scottsboro Boys" tells its story as a minstrel show - a popular entertainment from the 19th century that featured white performers, and sometimes black ones, in blackface. Composer John Kander notes they usually played buffoonish characters.

"Doing a minstrel show today is such a racially-charged thing that it already brings its own comment with it," says Kander. "So the very form that we were working in commented on the story that we were telling."

Mixing roles

"The Scottsboro Boys" makes use of the kind of broad stylized characters typical in minstrel shows and has many of the actors playing multiple roles - including white stereotypes.

'The Scottsboro Boys' tells its story as a minstrel show - a popular entertainment from the 19th century that featured white performers, and sometimes black ones, in blackface makeup.
'The Scottsboro Boys' tells its story as a minstrel show - a popular entertainment from the 19th century that featured white performers, and sometimes black ones, in blackface makeup.

"Our black company get to play a white sheriff and white guards and white lawyers and they get to play roles that they would never be allowed to play," says Stroman, the show's director. "And that makes it sort of an acting tour-de-force for them."

As the show progresses, the perspective of the Scottsboro Boys takes over. Towards the end of the musical, the Interlocutor - a master of ceremonies and the only white person onstage - asks the Scottsboro Boys to sing a ballad, called "Southern Days."

"And they do, indeed, sing it for him, but then they take the lyrics and spin them on their heads," says Stroman. "You know, they change the sweet lyrics of the how sweet it is down south to the horrors that they have been through."

The boys sing lyrics such as, "How the sights and sounds come back to me… like my daddy hangin' from a tree."

Students from Harlem's Academy for Social Action discuss 'The Scottsboro Boys' after seeing the show on Broadway.
Students from Harlem's Academy for Social Action discuss 'The Scottsboro Boys' after seeing the show on Broadway.

Lasting impression

The 1930s Alabama of lynchings and cross-burnings made an impression on those in the audience, like the Harlem teenagers. Jamal Baugh found himself talking to some audience members after the show.

"Me and Shannille was talking to two old ladies who was actually in that time. They were black also. So she was saying that can we relate to it? And I was like, 'No. I'm kind of glad that we live right now,'" recounts Baugh. "And how they were saying that they were sad at seeing how this play was so emotional and how it was racism at that time. So they had it bad while we had it good, for right now."

The Theater Development Fund, which sponsors the Open Doors program, has bought out the house for two upcoming matinees of "The Scottsboro Boys." They plan to bring 1,800 high school kids to see the show.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs