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The Scottsboro Boys

This Center Theatre Group production reveals the truth with intelligence and humor.

By Los Angeles

The cast of <i>The Scottsboro Boys</i> at the Ahmanson Theatre
The cast of The Scottsboro Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre
(© Craig Schwartz)
The Scottsboro Boys is a beautiful show about an ugly time when the Establishment ridiculed, tortured, feared, and destroyed the African-American experience. This provocative musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb utilizes the conceit of the minstrel show, a style of theater that derided African-Americans to shine a bright light on the horrors of growing up in post-Civil War South. Such a volatile play requires a stellar cast and the Ahmanson Theatre has been blessed with a band of fearless players.

David Thompson's script, based on a true story, focuses on the 1931 incarceration of nine innocent men by a crooked system. Though none of the men were executed, each one's eventual death would be blood on America's hands. Smartly, the book emphasizes empowerment even when the world is cruelly unfair. As the group's alpha, Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry) cannot change his heinous circumstances, but he can grab hold of his integrity and the truth, even when lying could "free" him. The play draws strong correlation between the travesty of this case and the '60s civil rights battle.

Kander and Ebb's score may not be their most memorable, but there are several stirring tunes, particularly the wistful "Commencing in Chattanooga." Like Cabaret, Ebb's lyrics punctuate the malice of the times like a punch to the jaw, as in the prosecution's anti-Semitic diatribe "Financial Advice."

Henry, who received a Tony nomination for the role on Broadway, is a booming presence. His powerful voice and commanding sense of self make Haywood a striking protagonist. As the two minstrel players, Trent Armand Kendall and JC Montgomery take the multiple offensive white characters (attorneys, law enforcers) that represent that corrupt system and fearlessly represent the repugnance of a community where justice was for just us. Tony winner Hal Linden brings regality to the community leaders (The Judge, The Governor). Unlike the heartless characters played by Kendall and Montgomery, Linden's characters believe these men to be innocent but still allow the wheels of injustice to turn crookedly. The talented actors who portray the rest of the Scottsboro Nine distinguish their roles and allow the audience to care about each one's fate. Crossdressing, Gilbert L Bailey II and Christian Dante White hilariously spoof the bubble-headed loose women whose vicious lies ruin the nine's lives, whose word would normally be mud but compared to nine African-American nomads are considered sacrosanct to the mob mentality.

Director Susan Stroman keeps the satire pointed so that even the most absurd moments are reflections of themes, not endorsements of racism. She and Jeff Whiting use extreme choreography of the minstrel movement to capture the insanity of White's views of African-Americans and also bring some levity to the plot.

The Scottsboro Boys could have been a jagged pill to swallow, but without giving up their subjects, the creators have written and produced a sometimes hilarious, often empowering glimpse of the human spirit that cannot be crushed even in death.

Tags: Joshua HenryCenter Theatre GroupSusan StromanJohn KanderThe Scottsboro BoysFred EbbDavid Thompson


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