I’d forgotten I was going to the theatre last night. At 7pm I was just getting comfortable at home, settling down for a relaxing night in. Forty-five minutes later I was in the second row of the dress circle as the curtain rose on The Scottsboro Boys.
I didn’t know much about it. One friend had seen it some months ago and loved it, but beyond the fact it was a musical and based on a true story, I wasn’t sure what I was going to see.
The programme (and the annoyingly loud woman behind me) filled me in in the few minutes before curtain-up: In 1931 nine young black men on a train travelling through Scottsboro, Alabama were falsely accused of raping two white women. They were arrested and imprisoned, protected from a lynch mob, but only to be sentenced to death by electric chair. The Scottsboro Boys tells their story – multiple trials and appeals, multiple convictions by all-white juries, even after one of the alleged victims came forward and testified that the story had been untrue.
Sounds a bit heavy, doesn’t it? That’s what the writers thought – it’s an important story that needs to be told, but who wants to come to the theatre to watch a play about a terrible miscarriage of justice? “If you don’t make it entertaining,” co-creator Fred Ebb pointed out, “no one will listen.” So they made it entertaining, basing its format on the old Minstrel shows, with an all-black cast except for the white Interlocutor, and a stage set comprised only of a dozen wooden chairs and a couple of thick planks of wood, with which they represented a train, a prison cell, a court room, a bus, and any other scene they needed.
The stage-craft was masterful – I do enjoy that kind of creativity, and love seeing what can be achieved with a few simple props, great lighting and a little imagination. The acting and dancing were superb – black men taking on all the roles, including the white sheriff and young white girls, incredible physicality and physical comedy – and the musical numbers were very clever (and probably more so if you were familiar with the conventions of Minstrel Shows, which I’m not, as they had rather gone out of fashion by the time I came along). Overall, though I found the experience unsettling – but not in the way it should have been.
Perhaps it’s because I arrived in such a fluster; watching an incredible tap-dance routine to a song about the electric chair, I found myself thinking ‘I wasn’t quite prepared for this.’ But then again, I’m not sure you can prepare yourself for the appropriate emotional response to an up-beat song-and-dance number about a thirteen-year-old’s impending execution. It’s wonderful and terrible, brilliant, uplifting, terrifying, horrific, cheery and awful all at the same time. My brain couldn’t compute the conflicting emotional responses, the things I was being made to feel warring with the things I knew I ought to feel, and wanted to feel. It was a very odd sensation.
In a way, that’s what I want theatre to do. Too many of the plays and shows I saw last year left me with no emotional response whatsoever, and I quickly forgot I’d even seen them. I don’t want to leave a theatre entirely unmoved. I like being challenged to think and react and reflect. But if a story like that leaves me reflecting more on the stage craft and production values than on the content and the lessons, I think it has got the balance just a little skewed.
Telling the Truth
The play was a lot about truth, and one of the main characters, Haywood Patterson, particularly reflects on the importance of telling the truth and how he learned that lesson the hard way as a child (telling the story with an outstanding shadow-puppet show, which I thought did enhance the narrative rather than distracting from it). At one point he is offered a pardon if he will just admit to the crime, but he refuses to lie, and ends up dying in jail 21 years after the original arrest.
It’s hard to process something like that. You admire him for telling the truth, and despise the judge and the system for refusing to believe the truth (as the recanting ‘victim’ wonders in her courtroom scene, “Why did everyone believe me when I lied, but no-one will believe me now I’m telling the truth?”), yet still, there is a part of you that wonders why he didn’t just give in and take the offered freedom. His character and integrity were outstanding; those are traits I should be lauding, yet the world of the play somehow left me feeling that he had been foolish in his decision to do what was right. Perhaps that’s simply because it was a true story, and in real life we don’t often see justice done, and in the world of the play there was no place for relying on God to bring justice at the end of time. The writers couldn’t create a faith that wasn’t there, of course, or give the characters a hope their real-life counterparts didn’t possess, but without that faith and hope, the play is just a sad story about a terrible injustice.
There is no redemptiveness about the tale, nor any real lessons about how we can avoid such things going forwards. Every one of the injustices of racial segregation in the South built towards a point at which it became impossible for the situation to be tolerated any longer, yet I’m not sure this play quite hit the mark in placing itself in that arc.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve given the play five out of five stars in my own little rating scheme, as it was superbly done, and the actors, director, set designers etc created a wonderful experience out of the material they were working with. I’m just not sure the play will take the place in the story of the South that it could – and should – have. It touched on the big themes of truth and justice without really allowing the characters or the audience to engage or wrestle with them. Fred Ebb didn’t quite meet his goal, for me – he made it so entertaining I wasn’t able to listen, and the world is poorer for it.
The Scottsboro Boys is running at the Garrick Theatre until 21st February 2015.