Reviewed by Judy Richter
"The Scottsboro Boys" is not only a condemnation of racism but also an eminently theatrical work. With music and lyrics by the great team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and a book by David Thompson, it's based on the true story of nine black teenagers whose lives were forever changed when they were falsely accused of raping two white girls in Alabama in 1931. Even though one of the girls later recanted, justice continued to elude the young men in a case that made national headlines.
The creators have used a minstrel show setting to tell the story, only in this case, the minstrel performers, except for one white man, are all black. Therefore, they don't need to be in exaggerated black face, as were the white performers in a minstrel show's traditional send up of black entertainment. The only white person in the cast of the American Conservatory Theater production is Hal Linden, who serves as the Interlocutor as well as a judge, the Alabama governor and a bus driver. Otherwise, the 1l black men in the cast portray all of the other characters, including white men and women. The only woman in the cast is C. Kelly Wright, known only as The Lady. It's a virtually nonspeaking role until the very last scene, when the time advances to 1955 and it becomes very clear that she's a seminal figure in the civil rights movement that followed.
Running about two hours without intermission, the show moves from an air of hopefulness as the nine teenagers, caught up in the Depression, hop a freight train to Memphis with plans to look for work. When the train got into Alabama, that's when everything goes wrong and they wind up in the Scottsboro jail. After that, they faced trial after trial, all with guilty verdicts at the hands of white jurors, judges and incompetent attorneys. When they finally got a competent attorney, Samuel Leibowitz (JC Montgomery), Southern racists belittled him as a New York Jew and possible communist.
Susan Stroman works her directoral and choreographic magic in this production, infusing it with creative staging and energetic dancing by the terrific cast. The set design by Beowulf Boritt mainly employs several steel chairs that can be configured as the basis for a train, bus, jail, courtroom and other settings. The lighting design by Ken Billington is exceptional. Costumes are by Toni-Leslie James and the sound by Jon Weston. Eric Ebbenga is musical director of the fine orchestra.
All of the performers sing well as individuals and in ensemble. Although it's truly an ensemble cast, Clifton Duncan carries a heavy load as Haywood Patterson, who becomes a leader of the nine. Patterson's associates are played by David Bazemore, Cornelius Bethea, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson, Eric Jackson, James T. Lane, Clifton Oliver and Clinton Roane. Completing the cast are Linden, Montgomery, Wright and Jared Joseph.
Every element of this production -- music, book, direction, artistic design and performance -- adds up to a compelling, thought-provoking evening of theater.