Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Scottsboro Boys" the Minstrel Show

John Kander and Fred Ebb teamed up for the last time to write "The Scottsboro Boys." (Ebb died in 2004.) The musical provocatively revives the racist theatrical tradition of the minstrel show to "tell the truth" about nine young black men convicted wrongly of raping two white women in rural Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. In doing so, the musical "deconstructs" the assumptions of white superiority that underlay the minstrel show. It also demonstrates how art forms associated with African Americans are rooted in the experience of slavery.

In an interview, 83-year-old Kander said that he had actually directed minstrel shows at a boys' camp in the 1930s. They were a part of the national culture then, performed without much thought about their offensiveness. The 1930s are not really that long ago. They are within living memory.

As Haywood Patterson, one of the nine men, Joshua Henry was a powerful and charismatic presence on stage. John Cullum played the difficult role of the Interlocutor well. The set consisted only of chairs and planks, which were rearranged to form a train, a prison and a courthouse. The show at the Lyceum was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, whom TH knew when he was working in Madison Square Gardens.

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