Tuesday, 29 October 2013

'The Scottsboro Boys' at The Young Vic

Tonight I was treated to a ticket to see 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Young Vic, the first UK production of the last Kander & Ebb musical. I hadn't heard of it before - or the story it tells - but I'm very pleased to have seen it.

It tells the story of nine black teenagers arrested in Alabama for the rape of two white women in 1931 and all are convicted despite there being no evidence of rape. We see the lads young and hopeful, riding the train to a better life and jobs when it all falls apart and they're thrown into jail. They become a cause celebre for the North against the South which really doesn't help the lads, even when one of the women admits in court that she lied. Eventually the four youngest lads are released and the other five serve their sentences.

That makes it sound terribly serious - and the underlying story is serious - but that's where Kander & Ebb come in to make it a musical worthy of the stage to tell the story and get it before audiences. They use the theme of an old fashioned Southern minstrel show to tell the story and give it structure. I have to admit that I recognised this early on by remembering the 'Minstrel' section from the film 'White Christmas', one of the first big song 'n' dance numbers in the film.

We have the Interlocutor who tells the story and plays the role of the white 'boss' and judge and we have Mr Bones and Mr Tambo who take the story forward as they also play the roles of the sheriff and his deputy as well as the lawyers in the court case.  This is a nice motif since they're black as Bones and Tambo but then play white folks by donning different clothes. Just as the two white women are played by two of the black boys wearing a hat and a cardy round their shoulders.

And shadowing many of the scenes is a silent and mysterious woman, the only woman in the show. Who is she?

It's all a terribly professional show and it was great to see two actors in this after seeing them earlier in the summer - Adebayo Bolaji as one of the lads' leads (from 'The Color Purple') and James T Lane who played Ruby, one of the women (from 'A Chorus Line'). Julian Glover plays the Interlocutor (the 'boss', judge and governor). Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon played Mr Bones/Sheriff/Lawyer and Mr Tambo/Deputy/Lawyer respectively and they were excellent, creating laughable and macabre grotesques as they went along. I'd also single out Kyle Scatliffe for praise as the lead lad who refuses to tell a lie even when his freedom depends on it. He played Haywood Patterson who eventually dies in prison.

The show ends by taking the minstrel theme to it's ultimate conclusion in which all the black actors come on stage all blacked up and with white lips like minstrels of old. They each tell their story and what happened to them next - and none of it is pretty - before wiping off the make-up and leaving the stage as the Interlocutor commands them to perform. This was received in silence only to be followed by a standing ovation from much of the audience.

I'd recommend seeing this show if you can - there's something here for everyone.

And who is the mysterious shadow woman? You'll just have to see the show to find that out...

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