By Kim Jackson and Lauren Van Hemert
What is most horrifying about the tragic story that grounds the Theatre Raleigh production of The Scottsboro Boys is that it is all too familiar. What is shockingly mesmerizing in this musical, which is expertly guided and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre, is the daring telling of the story through the framework of a minstrel show. What is even more chilling is the fact that this show is both entertaining and cringe-worthy at the same time, which in this case, isn’t a bad thing.
With words and music by John Kander and Fred Ebb (of Cabaret and Chicago fame), and a book by David Thompson, The Scottsboro Boys is based on the true story of nine young black men, ages 13 to 20, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931. Despite the lack of credible evidence, a fair trial was never going to happen in the southern town of Scottsboro, Alabama, and instead, a miscarriage of justice was repeated in eight subsequent court hearings.
While the story is enough to elicit outrage, the emotional intensity of the show is ratcheted up by its unique storytelling. A minstrel show, known for white actors in blackface exaggerating and perpetuating racial stereotypes, becomes the vehicle for interrogating our own prejudices. Here, an outstanding cast of black actors perform all the roles, except one, deftly subverting this vaudeville-style of entertainment. For 100 minutes, without an intermission, this troubling ride regales us with high-intensity song and dance numbers as it hurls us towards its shocking finale.
All of the cast members deliver compelling characterizations and negotiate the fine balance necessary to maintain an ironic mocking tone while dramatizing the grim, inhumanity that underlines the story.
Darius Jordan Lee offers a moving portrayal of the pent-up frustrations of Haywood Patterson, a man who is worn down by the system over the course of 20 years. He channels all the pain of his character through his melodic voice, especially in the number, You Can’t Do Me. Gerard M. Williams stands out in his role as Roy, helping Patterson learn to read and write. The youngest member of the cast, Michael Lassiter, as 13-year old Eugene, displays riveting talent and sophistication that belies his years. Melvin Gray, Jr (Ozie/Ruby) and Trey McCoy (Charles/Victoria) navigate between roles effortlessly, playing both the accused and accusers with the right amount of causticity. David Robbins as Mr. Bones and Jason Daniel Rath as Mr. Tambo, the traditional “clowns” of this minstrel troupe, also dexterously tackle multiple roles, as does David McClutchey, the only white actor in the ensemble. McClutchey elegantly delivers a commanding performance that unfailingly masks an undercurrent of white superiority with genteel southern charm. Aya Wallace moves silently through the proceedings, signaling scene changes, participating in dance numbers, and observing the plight of the young men. But the broader story her character reveals symbolizes the long-term impact this case had on our country and the Civil Rights Movement.
From the exquisite sparse set (Chris Bernier) and atmospheric lighting (Christina L. Munich) to the chilling sound effects (Eric Alexander Collins), period costumes (Dorothy Austin-Harrell), and stylistically sensitive musical direction (Joanna Li), the work of the show’s creative team adds to the unflinching rawness of this tragic piece.
The boldness of the Theatre Raleigh production of The Scottsboro Boys, both theatrically and historically speaking, is significant. It will engage and enrage and may even empower you to think differently about truth and justice in these United States. This isn’t good theater, it is great theater and a stunning finale to Theatre Raleigh’s summer season.
As a bonus, here is Lauren’s interview with Moses T. Alexander Greene and the cast of the Theatre Raleigh production of ‘The Scottsboro Boys,’ Jason Daniel Rath, David Robbins, Trey McCoy, and Aya Wallace.