Beautiful and Painful: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Nile Hawver / Nile Scott Shots; The ensemble getting down.

Nile Hawver / Nile Scott Shots; The ensemble getting down.

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Directed by Paul Daigneault
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern
Choreography by Ilyse Robbins

October 21 – November 26
Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts
527 Tremont Street
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Review by Danielle Rosvally

(Boston, MA) It’s difficult to know what to say about The Scottsboro Boys.  The piece is uncomfortable to watch not because of its incredible talent or flawless direction and design, but rather because it’s meant to be uncomfortable to watch.  The show is a remixed account of the historical case of The Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who in 1931 were accused of raping two white women on a train, told through the lens of American Minstrelsy.  Performed with gusto and amazing energy, SpeakEasy’s production is a triumph that should be mandatory viewing for any American (particularly in an election year as fraught with the urge to “just give up” as this one has been).

The cast is a constellation of stars who work flawlessly as an ensemble to sing, dance, and act their way through this painful tale.  Triple threats the lot of them, the sheer talent displayed onstage is enough to overwhelm.  De’Lon Grant plays Haywood Patterson with dynamic realness, alternately bending to the whims of Russel Garrett’s authoritative Interlocutor with a subversive glint in the eye and standing strong against the storm.  Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent play (accordingly) Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, characters plucked right out of the historical minstrel show.  Both display amazing physical comedy capabilities as they gallop and gambol their way through the many other parts they are asked to play in this story.  Darrell Morris, Jr. and Isaiah Reynolds have the theatrically impossible task of playing not only persecuted victims of racial oppression, but also their own oppressors as they take on the roles of the white women who accused the nine boys.  Morris and Reynolds play these parts with commitment and dedication, enough that they make it possible for audience members to buy in to their reality; that despite what we might see with our eyes, these men dressed in skirts and hats actually are Southern white women.

Impressive displays of acting prowess were matched only by the incredible vocal and physical talent of this cast.  Spectacular dance numbers showcasing flexibility and strength were accompanied by melodious and poignant harmonies sung alternatingly boldly and sweetly.  Matthew Stern’s music direction led the cast through true and strong.

There was more than a little bit of magic onstage last night woven by the actors, but it was matched by equal talent from the creative team.  Scenic Designer Eric Levenson gave the show just enough to work with without cluttering the stage with unnecessary extras.  The minimalistic, elegant, chameleon set provided the perfect backdrop for a piece where actors play multiple characters over a vast array of locations in several different modes of theatrical reality.  Costumes by Miranda Kau Giurleo were similarly suggestive without being over the top.  The entire piece had an elegance in its design that allowed audiences to key into the rampant shifts in mode the piece called for.

Ilyse Robbins’ choreography was nothing short of spectacular.  Kander and Ebb were careful to work period influences into the music for this show, and Robbins took the note and ran with it.  She was able to create something that felt appropriate to the period without feeling old-fashioned or stilted, and instead showcased the magnificence of the cast’s movement prowess.

This play deals with several painful realities of American history, realities that we (as a society) are still coming to terms with almost one hundred years after the events it depicts.  I wasn’t certain whether to be hopeful or anxious at the fact that last night’s audience consisted of mostly white middle-aged patrons.  If you are unfamiliar with American minstrelsy, you might be wise to do a tiny bit of reading up on the subject before attending this show just to have a sense of what you’re about to witness. There is a well put-together article on this in the SpeakEasy program that you might leave time to read before the show, but I think it is probably helpful to have some background knowledge beforehand.  Whether you find a moment to read up or not, make sure you find time to get to the BCA and see this piece. It’s an important piece of theatre, not frequently performed, and certainly not performed often with the magnificence of SpeakEasy’s production.

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