Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773
When: through March 12
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Porchlight Music Theatre has assembled a massively talented cast for the Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the 2010 final collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, who died in 2004.
Like their “Cabaret,” “Chicago,” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” this musical delves into subject matter that’s far from family-friendly, elevates it with beautiful and clever songs, and involves experimentation in form.
In the case of “The Scottsboro Boys,” Kander, Ebb, and book writer David Thompson turned one of the country’s most infamous miscarriages of justice into a minstrel show, a deliberately ironic choice intended to create a biting and bitter satire. The problem with Porchlight’s production, directed by Samuel G. Roberson, Jr., is that it doesn’t capture the tone in any consistent fashion, so half the time the drama basically is straightforward. And the storytelling is sketchy compared to Mark Stein’s 2002
“Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow),” which was revived last summer at Raven Theatre Company and offered much more fully individualized characters, though this show does a better job of telling us what ultimately happened to them.
The ordeal for the nine African American “boys”–Olen Montogomery (Travis Austin Wright), Andy Wright (Maurice Randle), his brother Roy Wright (Jerome Riley, Jr.), Eugene Williams (Cameron Goode), Clarence Norris (Stephen Allen, Jr.), Willie Roberson (Izaiah Harris), Ozzie Powell (Trequon Tate), Charles Weems (Jos N. Banks), and Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II)–began in 1931, during the Great Depression, when they were pulled off a train traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis in Paint Rock, Alabama, and arrested for assault because several of them had gotten into a scuffle with some white boys. Then Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, two white women traveling with a man who may have been their pimp, accused them of rape, which was added to the charges and carried the death penalty.
The first three trials took place in Scottsboro with the boys, most of whom hadn’t even known each other, getting incompetent legal representation and being convicted and sentenced to death (except the youngest, who was only 12). More trials, convictions, appeals, and stretches on death row followed, along with threats of mob action, frame-ups, and other abuses. The case became a big cause for progressive national organizations including the Communist-affiliated International Labor Defense represented by attorney, Joe Brodsky, who retained NewYork criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz to defend the boys, and the NAACP led by Walter White. Though largely forgotten now, it resulted in two important Supreme Court rulings—that the young men were not provided with proper legal counsel during their first trial and that they were denied a proper jury of their peers because the jury lacked African Americans—and dragged on for decades. In fact, the last three defendants were finally pardoned posthumously in 2013.
In Kander and Ebb’s version, the only white actor is the Interlocutor (Larry Yando, appropriately sardonic and sleazy), who is the master of ceremonies and controls the action (up until the end), as well as portraying authorities, such as the Judge and Governor of Alabama. Two stock minstrel show figures, Mr. Tambo (Mark J. P. Hood) and Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang, who’s terrific), play various members of law enforcement who mistreat and terrorize the prisoners; Hood also is Northern Jewish lawyer Leibowitz, though he seems to keep his Southern accent. Banks and Tate don furs and other frippery (costumes by Samantha Jones) to become Victoria and Ruby respectively; Banks is especially funny in drag, though it’s Tate’s Ruby who makes the sad point that no one believes her when she recants, but everyone did when she was lying.
There’s also the middle-aged Lady (Cynthia Clarey), who comes and goes around the edges and seems to represent a variety of people, among them Haywood’s mother. In the end, a scene on a bus connects her to the Civil Rights movement, but she’s only tenuously connected to the other defendants, and I don’t see what she has to do with the minstrel show motif.
The six-person orchestra under musical director Doug Peck begins and ends the evening with the “Minstrel March.” In between are a variety of numbers ranging from the haunting “Nothin’” and “Go Back Home” to set pieces about the “Chain Gang,” “Electric Chair,” and “Southern Days.” Some feature the stylized motion of the minstrel shows, and one is done in black face and white gloves (quite powerful). For the most part, though, Florence Walker-Harris’ choreography leans towards overkill. Everyone is in motion too much of the time, especially since the actors actually are better singers than dancers.
Patterson’s plight is the focus of the plot, and Jones II does a fine job of conveying his frustration and rage, as well as his staunch refusal to confess to a crime he didn’t commit—no matter the consequences. His moral victory also is his practical defeat, and I wish that the actor’s portrayal had been more multidimensional. Oddly, the only other “boys” singled out in any significant way are Roy Wright, who teaches Patterson to read, and Eugene Williams, the youngest and among the first four to be released.
Andrei Onegin’s scenic design—with crates, ropes, and the suggestion of a box car—is serviceable, as is Richard Norwood’s lighting design. There are some supposedly evocative background projections by Ross Hoppe, but I could barely see them. Keegan Bradac’s sound design is okay, except that a couple of the actor’s body microphones kept fading in and out. Jones II’s fell off at one point, and I’d say he didn’t need it in such a small theater.
Porchlight’s “The Scottsboro Boys” is better than average but flawed enough that it made me want to see a really great production. Still, in these turbulent times, it’s a chilling reminder that the same sort of travesty can still happen, and we need to do everything we can to prevent it.