The audacious, troubling, and yet strangely entertaining work tells the true story of nine men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train traveling through Alabama in 1931 within the framework of a traveling minstrel show, led by the white Interlocutor (a winningly smarmy John Cullum).
His two principal performers are Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), who play a variety of the Caucasian men who figure prominently in the Scottsboro case, while the remainder of the ensemble play the Boys. All the while, a lone woman (played with ethereal dignity by Sharon Washington) -- whose true significance remains unclear until show's end -- haunts the action.
The men's plight, heartbreaking and anger-inspiring to start, deepens as the show tilts its focus slightly towards Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry, one of the cast's new additions), who frequently becomes the show's moral compass as he steadfastly demands the truth about what happened on the train, while simultaneously refusing to compound falsehoods by admitting guilt to something he didn't do. Henry brings a rawness and bitterness to the role that proves riveting and his work grounds the show with intensity.
Domingo and McClendon still inspire laughs early on as the Yosemite Sam-like sheriff (Domingo) and his bumbling deputy (McClendon) who find the men stowed away inside a boxcar along with two white women (played as cutting parodies of "po' white trash" by original cast member Christian Dante White and newcomer James T. Lane) who have also hidden on the train and become the men's accusers.
At the same time, Domingo and McClendon have honed their work in two numbers delivered later in the show. McClendon is astonishing in his Al Jolson-like approach to a tune delivered by Samuel Leibowitz, the New York attorney who defends the guys at their second trial. And Domingo is fearless in his delivery of "Financial Advice," a song by the prosecutor in the case that's filled with particularly ugly bigotry.
It's during this trial -- the second of many that the Boys endured -- that one of the women recants. Yet, despite her testimony (zestfully rendered by Lane), the men are still found guilty, and a string of appeals and barrage of legal maneuvering continues for another six years.
The production, guided with elegant simplicity by Stroman, unfolds with rapid fluidity on a stage that scenic designer Beowulf Boritt frames with skewed proscenium arches that echo the show's off-kilter approach to the story. The other elements of his design are a dozen chairs and a few boards, which are inventively rearranged to represent a variety of locations. As lit by designer Kevin Adams, the illusion of shifting from boxcar to darkened jail cell to sun-filled courtroom is complete.
Like the show's score, which references cakewalks, New Orleans jazz, ragtime, and gospel, Stroman's choreography is a mélange of styles and often surprises with its ability to find humor in even the saddest situations. The tap combination that she has created for "Electric Chair" -- in which Eugene, the youngest of the accused (a simultaneously mature and innocent Jeremy Gumbs) imagines his demise -- is one of the show's many unexpected triumphs.
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