By Barry Reszel
There’s a proper malaise that sets into audience members at Porchlight Music Theatre’s brilliant new production of The Scottsboro Boys.
Opening the week of an epic presidential battle with the courts over exclusion; the same week avowed anti-racist Jefferson Sessions, whose colleagues once testified he “used n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan,” became U.S. Attorney General; in the wake of several years’ publicity of unarmed people of color being killed by law enforcement, the discomfort is palpable.
Because what should be a haunting-but-anachronistic 1930s tale of nine Black men railroaded, falsely accused and convicted multiple times of said capital crimes, feels anything but old-fashioned or outdated.
Sadly, The Scottsboro Boys is contemporarily relevant and modernly petrifying. And if this magnificent piece of musical theatre can scare the living shit out of a reviewer who’s the very poster child of White privilege, its effect on our society’s unfairly oppressed ought to be a hundredfold greater.
Directed by Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and choreographed by Florence Walker Harris with musical director by Doug Peck, Porchlight’s Scottsboro Boys is the Chicago premiere of the 2010 Broadway musical (book by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb) that garnered a dozen Tony nominations the following year.
It’s a haunting, true tale of the prejudicial South of the 1930s, told via a more modern, fictional minstrel troupe run by the White boss (masterfully portrayed by Larry Yando). Porchlight’s typically helpful program points out live minstrel shows and blackface portrayals largely disappeared in the 1920s. So this convention is anachronistic in it’s own right, but it brilliantly illustrates the tension between the all-Black company members and their “master.” This, along with a silent, omniscient, female character (Cynthia Clarey) observing the storytelling, affords The Scottsboro Boys tragedy its moniker as a heroic contribution to the Civil Rights movement.
The story is this. In 1931, in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine Black teens (between the ages of 13 and 19) were ripped off a train from Chattanooga to Memphis, falsely accused of raping two White women (one of whom recanted her story); arrested; jailed, despite there being no evidence; convicted; and sentenced to death. A full synopsis and production history may be read here.
Told mostly from a shared jailhouse and combining musical styles from ballad to toe-tapper, spiritual to comedic, Roberson’s splendid cast is made up top-notch local actors, each of them illustrating triple-threat capabilities. The cast is led by brilliant James Earl Jones II as Haywood Patterson, de facto leader of the group. Jones’ thunderous voice with personality to match owns the Porchlight Stage at Stage 773, handsomely adorned by Scenic Designer Andrei Onegin‘s functional unit set and strikingly lit by Richard Norwood.
In this true ensemble presentation, the actors together deliver the shared experiences of torment, daily relived, becoming the reincarnated men who truly lived them and, equally difficult, their tormentors. These fine performers include Stephen Allen, Jr., Jos N. Banks, Clarey, Cameron Goode, Izaiah Harris, Mark J.P. Hood, Jones, Maurice Randle, Jerome Riley, Jr., Trequon Tate, Denzel Tsopnang, Travis Austin Wright and Yando.
Hours, even a couple days after taking in this masterful production, it hangs in a patron’s consciousness and weighs on a collective conscience of shared truth.
But the malaise is simply for these young martyrs of our past. It is, to an even greater degree, for the understanding there are destined to be more young martyrs in the days that lie ahead.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “The Scottsboro Boys” through March 12 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.