THEATER | Failed satire: “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Guthrie Theater

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It’s too bad The Scottsboro Boys, now playing at the Guthrie Theater, didn’t have an intermission, or I definitely would have left halfway through the show. The musical, which had a run off-Broadway and supposedly is on its way back to Broadway, is so offensively bad it took all my powers not to walk out.  As it was, my friend and I kept looking at each other in horror, and when we weren’t doing that I was pulling my hair, covering my face, and squirming in my chair for the entire two hours. Yes, I’m that rude of an audience member, and yes, it was that bad.

The play concerns the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African-American men who were accused in 1931 of raping two white women on a train. The young men were found guilty and all but the youngest were sentenced to death. What followed was a long fight for justice as the men were repeatedly tried and retried in a decade-long court battle.

It’s certainly an important aspect of U.S. history, one that probably isn’t highlighted enough. I think the subject matter could have been the makings of a great play in the hands of a different creative team. But under the helm of John Kander and Fred Ebb (the composer and librettist who also brought us Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman), using a book written by David Thompson, and as directed by Susan Stroman, the musical is grotesque.

the scottsboro boys, presented through september 25 at the guthrie theater. for information and tickets ($29-$65), see ordway.org

For some reason, the creators decided to depict this moment of history as a minstrel show, that style of theater which grew popular out of the antebellum South where white performers dressed up in blackface and sang songs and did dances that made fun of African-Americans. In a way, I can see the justification for this. Essentially, the Scottsboro Trials showed the injustice of the Jim Crow laws, and minstrel shows also were one of the cultural forces that perpetuated the racism of this country. (The show even features a stock minstrel character called “Jim Crow.”)

The problem with making the choice to use the minstrel show style to present the material is that no matter how sarcastic and satirical the creative team tried to make the minstrel show tunes and clowning gags, the audience just couldn’t resist being entertained by it all. They may have been horrified at moments—particularly at the end when the actors actually came out in blackface—but on opening night, the audience laughed at the racist jokes. They applauded at the rousing tap dance number and they cheered at the end of the show tunes. I’m serious. They did. I was horrified. 

If the creators really wanted to make a statement, they would have made the minstrel sections not entertaining at all. They wouldn’t have had awesome singers and dancers wowing us with their skill. They would have told the racist jokes in a way that distorted them and made them absolutely not funny. The efforts the creators took to critique the minstrel show—such as having the black actors use minstrel characters to play the white lawyers, or the last moment of the play when the minstrel troupe refuses to sing for the white master of ceremonies—didn’t go far enough to overcome the uncomfortable fact that the minstrel-show style is being revived to entertain (in this case, at least) a largely white audience.

Nor can the scenes not in minstrel style redeem the show, since those songs are boring and their emotions syrupy. None of the characters are well developed; we get the generalized pathos of wronged men, without ever finding out about the deeper lives of the characters.

It scares me to think that The Scottsboro Boys will somehow be a hit. I hope for the sake of America that it doesn’t.