(Lower)Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson (Upper) Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson (center) and the cast of The Scottsboro Boys, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, June 21 – July 15, 2012 at American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Henry DiRocco.

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS: Musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb with book by David Thompson. Musical direction by Eric Ebbenga. Direction and choreography by Susan Stroman. American Conservatory Theater (ACT), 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA, 415.749.2228 or June 27 – July 22, 2012.

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS at ACT is a stunning must see production.

One could sense the tense excitement in the audience on the street and in the lobby before entering the sold out opening night ACT theatre for the musical The Scottsboro Boys that arrived here after a successful run at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The expectations were met with a stunning performance that was rewarded with a spontaneous standing ovation. Yet, there would (should) be a knot in the pit of your stomach since the subject matter is abhorrent.

In the 1930s nine teenage black boys hopped a train in Chattanooga heading to Memphis seeking work. In Alabama two poor white trash girls, in order to protect themselves from being harassed by the white authorities accused the nine of raping them. Thus began the horrendous legal saga of the nine who eventually would be labeled the “Scottsboro Boys” that became a rallying cry of the Civil Rights Movement. It is not an uplifting story nor is it a downer, but like the story of the holocaust should be told and remembered. In this Kander/Ebb/Thompson/Stroman production the desire to tell the tale lest we forget is evident in words, music and deeds.

After the death of Fred Ebb, the project that began in 2002 was side aside until 2008 finally opening in the historic off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre dedicated to creating new/provocative/artistic works. It then had a successful run at the Guthrie in Minneapolis before opening to critical acclaim but public approbation closing after a short run. The powers behind the production recognized the potential for a greater audience away from Broadway and re-tooled the show at the Old Globe. The ACT production has added TV’s Hal Linden (of Barney Miller fame) as the Interlocutor most probably to attract a wider audience. It may do so but Linden’s lack luster performance is overshadowed by the brilliant all black cast.

Using the minstrel format that is detested and highly racists is both an astute and questionable decision. In this production under Strohman’s ingenious direction it allows the marvelous cast to engage in energetic dances and gives cutting satirical meaning to Ebbs’ lyrics. Kander and Ebbs’ style used in previous shows (Chicago, Cabaret, Flora The Red Menace etc.) is apparent. The most noticeable is Clifton Duncan’s rendition of “Nothin” that is a direct steal of “Cellophane Man” from Chicago.

For this production we are forced to stay put for almost two hours without intermission while our senses are battered with the re-creation of infamous trials and their aftermath. What little humor there is in the telling is not enough to remove the bitter taste of man’s inhumanity to man solely on the basis of the color of his skin.

The boys know that being accused of rape by a white woman is tantamount to a death sentence and that is the initial and subsequent decisions of the four trials that ensued. During the intervening years they all were subjected to physical abuse. That is the subject of evening and one would hesitate to recommend it to a general audience. But the daring and clever staging accomplishes the intent of the production: It is time to remember and not forget the travesty of justice for these nine unfortunate boys.

The use of the minstrel format using all blacks is initially appalling and as the white interlocutor puts the boys through their demeaning paces and the cast performs with energetic intensity the satire is apparent and appropriate and you can partially sit back and appreciate the fine dancing, singing and acting of the entire cast. Jared Joseph and JC Montgomery first make fools of themselves as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, because that is what they would do in a minstrel show. They then are given the unviable roles of all the white men who persecute the boys. They do a magnificent job.

All nine of the boys are given distinctive characterizations and work as a perfect ensemble in their dancing and scene changes. The relatively bare stage is set (Beowulf Boritt)with off-centered proscenium arches (hopefully signifying that what we are seeing is an askew story line) and simple metal chairs moved about by the cast creating at various times, a box car, a jail cell, a court room, a bus, an isolation cell and more.

With the exception of Clifton Duncan, other members of the cast double in other roles with varying degrees of plausibility but always in character. The concept of “the truth will set you free” is turned on its head. The early scenes express the concept that lies lead to disastrous consequences but in the last scenes expressing the truth that they are not guilty denies them parole and further jail time.

The music is eclectic as one would except from Kander and Ebb. The dancing exuberates and the nine piece pit orchestra the perfect accompaniment for the evening. There are no songs for you to hum on leaving the theatre but it is an evening to remember.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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