By Darlene Donloe
Anyone familiar with the notorious story about The Scottsboro Boys, knows it’s nothing to laugh about.
However, The Scottsboro Boys, a production now playing at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles through June 30, has found a way to presents the narrative in an uncomfortable, comical-minstrel show.
The horrific story of injustice thrust upon nine Black youths in Scottsboro, Ala., circa March 1931, is tragic, unjustified, incredible, surprising, painful, disgusting, unbelievable and frightening.
The nine, who didn’t know each other, save for two of whom were brothers, all boarded a train looking for work. Then, without provocation, they were pulled from the train, accused of raping two white women and then thrown in jail. They had several hurried trials, with all-white juries who, of course, convicted and sentenced all but one of them, who was only 13 at the time, to death by electric chair. The boys ranged in age from 13 to 19.
The show reenacts the real-life horror the boys went through after they were simply looking for work at the dawn of the Great Depression.
Here is what reportedly happened: Victoria Price was in serious trouble because her friend, Ruby Bates, was a minor. It's a federal crime to take a minor across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. In order to get out of trouble, Victoria and Ruby said that the Black men had raped them. The white Southern happened to be passengers on the same Memphis-bound train as the boys. Ruby later recanted her story about the rape and told the truth.
It wasn’t until April 2013 that The Scottsboro Boys were officially pardoned by the governor of Alabama.
It’s brave of the writer, producer, director and actors to present such an iconic and complicated part of history in a tongue-n-cheek manner.
The buffoonery and cooning displayed in the show is uncomfortable to watch. One suspects that’s how the show was deliberately designed. In fact, at the recent opening of The Scottsboro Boys it was clear that some of the white audience members were unsure of whether it was appropriate to laugh.
This fast-paced show is inventive and creative, entertaining and disturbing.
The level of racial injustice displayed in America is uncovered. The curtain has been pulled back forcing everyone to look at themselves in the mirror.
John Kander and Fred Ebb (who died in 2004) are best known for musicals like Cabaret and Chicago. They colored (pun intended) outside of the lines with their The Scottsboro Boys production. With a book by David Thompson, Kander and Ebb have created their most edgy work to date.
Edgy is being kind. There are inappropriate jokes, Cake Walks, shufflin’ and bugged eyes, all planted with the intent to make a point!
Trent Armand Kendall, who plays Mr. Bones and JC Montgomery who plays Mr. Tambo play various over the top roles throughout the show including a slew of wicked white folks in the form of lawyers, the governor of Alabama, sheriffs and more.
The entire cast is exceptional! Joshua Henry, who plays Haywood Patterson, one of the boys who spent 21 years in prison before dying of cancer, has a bold stage presence. He sets the tone with the proclamation: "This time, can we tell the truth?"
Christian Dante White and Gilbert L. Bailey II who play the white female accusers Victoria Price and Ruby Bates respectively are hilarious and engaging. Hal Linden, the sole white performer, acts as a master of ceremony of sorts.
The show, which had its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre and closed early on Broadway, is controversial, but it works! It’s polished, emotive and spins a crafty yarn.
The Scottsboro Boys, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, stars Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White and C. Kelly Wright.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), The Scottsboro Boys gets an E (excellent).
The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 8 p.m., Tues.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sun., no performance on Mondays, added 2 p.m. performance on Thurs., June 20 and June 27, no 6:30 p.m. performance on Sun., June 23 and June 30; through June 30; $20-$115; for information: Center Theatre Group.org or 213. 972-4400.