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

Ebola Death Toll Nears 5,000 as Virus Advances

West Africa bears heaviest burden; Mali toddler’s death raises new fears More

Jordan’s Battle With Islamic State Militants Carries Domestic Risks

Despite Western concerns that IS militants are preparing a Jordanian offensive, analysts call the kingdom's solid intel a strong deterrent More

Asian-Americans Assume Office in Record Numbers

Steadily deepening engagement in local politics pays off for politicians like Chinese-American Judy Chu 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.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Comanche Chief Quanah Parker’s Century-Old House Falling Apart

One of the most fascinating people in U.S. history was Quanah Parker, the last chief of the American Indian tribe, the Comanche. He was the son of a Comanche warrior and a white woman who had been captured by the Indians. Parker was a fierce warrior until 1875 when he led his people to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and took on a new, peaceful life. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Cache, Oklahoma, Quanah’s image remains strong among his people, but part of his heritage is in danger of disappearing.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid