Monday, 26 January 2015

'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Garrick Theatre

I saw 'The Scottsboro Boys' at the Young Vic in 2013 and, after a bit of a gap, it transferred into the West End to the venerable and ornate Garrick late last year and it's got another month or so to run. I thoroughly enjoyed the first viewing and blogged about it at the time so wanted to see it again.

The production is the same and the cast is almost the same with a  few changes, like the inclusion of Brandon Victor Dixon as lead lad, Haywood, who originated the roll on Broadway in 2010. It's still staged within an old time minstrel format with Mr Tambo and Mr Bones, still has an imaginative use of chairs and the silent woman who eases her way into scenes and never speaks until the very end. It's the final Kander & Ebb musical and it does them proud, telling a little known story from the deep south, of injustice and unthinking racism because that's just the way it was. But it doesn't have to be that way.

It's the story of nine young black men and boys seeking work by heading north, full of enthusiasm and hope for a new life when the train pulls into Scottsboro in Alabama. Two white women are also riding the rails and they accuse the boys of raping them. No evidence is needed since white women wouldn't lie about such a thing.

That's the start of the real story of the Scottsboro Boys and their endless trials, always found guilty even when one of the women changes her story and admits that they weren't raped. But the south can't admit it got it wrong when black men are concerned. We follow the boys as they grow old and some are released, then others are, but Haywood dies in prison. They were all pardoned by the Governor of Alabama in 2013.

Despite the rather dour story the play zips along between comedy and tragedy at a nice pace so it keeps moving and we learn more about the leading characters. The white women are played by two of the boys with the addition of hats and shawls and Mr Tambo and Mr Bones play the sheriff and his deputy and various other white characters simply by saying they're white. They bring the comedy but, at the same time, the terror of a system that doesn't believe you have rights if you're not white. The only white man in the play is Julian Glover who plays the Interlocuter and the judge (and later, a bus driver), which is quite telling, wanting the lads to sing happy songs.

It's a song and dance spectacular and the staging is excellent. The props are minimal, a set of 12 chairs that are used with some planks of wood on top to depict the train rumbling through Alabama and are constructed to resemble their prison cell and as solitary confinement for Haywood. Some tambourines and a couple of clothing changes and that's it. Most of the play is set with the lads wearing a white prison uniform, every now and then re-assembling the chairs into a semi-circle to represent the court.

The main difference between this show and the one I saw back in 2013 - which is, otherwise, the same production - was that Brandon Victor Dixon took the lead role as Haywood Patterson, the lead lad of the Scottsboro Boys who wrote their tale in prison and died there. Brandon was excellent, a definite presence on stage and with a voice to match. He seemed to play it more angry and determined and pulled it off. He plays a formidable character who will not lie - even to get his own freedom - since he's suffered for the consequences of a tiny white lie for most of his life. It was a powerful performance.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon played Bones and Tambo and James T Lane played one of the lads and also Ruby Bates, one of the white women (with a shawl and hat, of course). Dawn Hope played the mysterious lady who appeared now and then and finally had a speaking line at the end of the play when she said 'no' to moving seats on a bus.

It's a grand play and a great production. Pop along to the Garrick if you can and see something very unusual - a musical with a serious and powerful message. And these are the real Scottsboro boys:

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