Scottsboro Boys Garrick Theatre
In Alabama in 1931, nine black teenagers, ages ranging from 13 to 19, were pulled off a train and accused of the gang rape of two white women. The trail was a farce, the witnesses’ evidence was full of holes, the boys were not given proper legal counsel, the lawyers they were issued had no time to build a proper defence case and the jury was entirely white. The trial was rushed through in a matter of days to try prevent a lynching due to the size of the baying crowd outside the courthouse. With all this in mind an innocent verdict should have been open and shut, but this was Alabama in the thirties and the law was… a tad skewed against the black community. In the face of all this underwhelming evidence the judge duly issued all nine teens with the death penalty, the traditional punishment for black on white rape in the South.
The case was taken up as a cause célèbre by the American Communist party. They pursued this obviously racist frame up with a decades-long program of appeals where the nine boys were found guilty again and again, despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence. Even when one of the ‘raped’ women recanted her testimony, claiming her and her friend made the whole thing up, the defence could not secure a not guilty verdict.
Eventually, with the eyes of America on them, the state of Alabama was forced to offer the boys full exoneration. Admittedly the exoneration was in 2013, and all of the boys were long dead, but in these matters it’s clearly the spirit of the thing that’s important.
With all this in mind, when considering how best to adapt this horrific story of institutionalised racism, miscarriages of justice and the destruction of human dignity it must be said that very few would light on ‘West End musical’ as the most obvious choice. The end result however might be one of the slyest and flat out angriest musicals that the world has ever seen.
With words and music by famed duo Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) the story is framed like an inverted 19th century minstrel show, right down to the seemingly avuncular Colonel Sanders-esque Interlocutor, who stage manages the action with an increasingly iron fist. In keeping with the traditions of the genre there are two MC type figures Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, who play the majority of the supporting roles (men and women) imbuing them with manic, exaggerated physical comedy. These two mug to the audience with impossibly wide smiles, a grotesque parody of servility, which become unpleasantly tortured as the play progresses.
By playing the ‘humour’ as broad, nasty and stylised, the show arguably loses out on some of the more subversive techniques that Kander and Ebb are known for. In Cabaret the rise of Nazism was cleverly left in background of the story, here the toxicity of racism has corrosively settled into every nook and cranny of the show. The white characters are nightmarish funhouse mirrors, extreme southern accents and lack of humanity rendering them almost Brechtian caricatures. Indeed one of the only criticisms to lay at Scottsboro Boys door is that, with the exception of Brandon Victor Dixon’s nuanced Heywood Patterson, the rest of the boys can feel like a bit of a blank cipher, a strange issue to crop up in a play otherwise so keenly concerned with the flattening and oppression of individuals.
However, somehow, the show manages to avoid falling into the trap of being simply exploitative, the jokes work as jokes and the songs; an interesting mix of ragtime, gospel and soul, are often catchy and toe-tapping, despite the bleakness of their subject matter. Two in particular are full-on show-stoppers; Electric Chair: a nightmarish ode to ‘riding the lightning’ and Financial Advice: sung by the prosecution against the Boys’ New York Jewish Lawyer, featuring the immortal refrain “Let me tell you, sonny/There’s nothin’ like Jew money”.
Whilst initially amusing as an example of the play’s trampling of sacred cows, Financial Advice is put into grimmer relief on realising that in real life the prosecution truly did ask the jury “whether justice is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?”. A request for a mistrial from Defence lawyer Samuel Leibowitz was predictably refused.
It’s a truly good sign that something as subversive as Scottsboro Boys can be found in the heart of the West End. The audience was left staggered by the depths of hate on display but without feeling bludgeoned into a brutal self-hatred. The rather bizarre and non-representative adverts on public transport notwithstanding (I challenge anyone not familiar with the story or production to look at them and accurately surmise what the play is about, my guess was a forties version of Stomp!, not quite in the right ballpark) the musical is an unblinking cynical take on institutionalised racism that has the potential to stay with the viewer far longer than a more ‘worthy’ or ‘serious’ production might.