The Scottsboro Boys at SpeakEasy

New Year’s Eve included The Scottsboro Boys by SpeakEasy Stage at Boston Center for the Arts. Scottsboro was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the same team who created Cabaret and Chicago. This was a terrific production, funny at times, but in the end, sad and painful, as it should have been. The singing and dancing, the stagecraft that harkened back to the days of minstrelrsy (complete with the end men Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo and their Interlocutor–features of theater history I had read about but had never seen on a stage) made it bearable, but omg, what a dreadful event it portrays.

Ironically, the reason the trials of the young men arrested in Scottsboro is that, horrible and sad as the story is, it marked a moment when the ‘arc of the moral universe’ in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., began its long slow bend toward justice. The teenagers (the youngest was 12) known as the Scottsboro Boys were not lynched. Remarkably they were not even executed. This is not to say that they were treated justly or fairly, but this famous case of the early 1930s in which nine young African American males were falsely accused of raping two white women may have been the first time U.S. courts overruled decisions made by all-white juries regarding guilt in such cases. Nonetheless, while these men were not executed, their lives were destroyed. There are no happy endings here.

I never saw the Broadway versions of either Cabaret or Chicago–just the films, and Hollywood being what it is, it might be that the original stage versions were grimmer than the films. But what struck me as different about Scottsboro is that while Cabaret and Chicago were based on 1st-person accounts of dark events, they were fictionalized. Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and Chicago is based on a play reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote about the cases she covered in jazz-era Chicago. The Scottsboro Boys, on the other hand, is based on historical events and real people, rather than an observer’s fictionalized account. The Nazis were defeated (for the time being, at least), and the excesses of prohibition-era Chicago have come to an end (although the city has different problems today), but the reality of the fates of the nine young men arrested in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 cannot be glossed over with a song-and-dance routine. The Scottsboro trials may have marked a turning point, but the bending toward justice is far from complete.

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