The Scottsboro Boys: justice on stage, the truth on trial

In 1931, nine African-American teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women, tried by all white jurors, convicted and sentenced to death. But the American Communist Party retained a Jewish attorney to come to their rescue.

At their appeal, one of the white ‘‘victims’’ confessed the rape never took place. Regardless, those nine teenagers, who were not properly represented in court, and tried by all white jurors (at this time only white people had the right to be on the jury) were convicted and sentenced to death. The Scottsboro boys’ case lasted 20 years; no other case in American history has seen as many trials, conviction, reversals and retrials.

The terrible, repeated miscarriages of justice destroyed their lives. The case resulted in two Supreme Court landmark rulings: the right to be tried by a jury of your peers, and the right for legal representation. There were marches, protests and sit-ins triggered by the case. The Scottsboro boys’ case became part of the American civil rights movement.

Hardly the stuff of musical theatre, one might think?

However I was honoured to be one of the main producers of the UK production of the musical The Scottsboro Boys, written and composed by the legendary team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who created Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. The show received 12 Tony award nominations, six Olivier award nominations, and was the winner of both The Critics’ Circle Award, and The Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

One of the controversies of the show was the use of the Minstrel Show device– traditionally considered racist – of “blacking up”. During the play, the boys are turned into “minstrels”, effectively mocking their own race.

At first, audiences in New York protested, thinking it was insensitive and racist. However, those audiences eventually came around to the show. They began to see it – like I did – as an insightful commentary on those difficult topics of segregation and prejudice.

John Kander himself said later: “Making art is not sociology. You write something because you want to write it and because it stirs you in some way. We weren’t thinking of ourselves in that kind of pompous way of writing sociological tracts. We wrote shows.”

Mr Kander is right. Great theatre is not a textbook or a lecture in political correctness; it transcends the binary notion of good versus evil, to allow us to enter into the complexity of human understanding and behaviour.

The very pace of the play echoes this: the characters begin performing enthusiastically to please their old white vaudevillian boss, but as the show progresses we see the melancholy and bitterness behind the characters’ superficial charm.

In the song Southern Days, this reaches an apotheosis for the audience; the lilting song which conjures up the Alabama fields of cotton-picking lore is irresistible in its melody, but the words become ever more menacing. Suddenly, the boys are no longer singing about “mammy’s pullin’ pork and cookin’ grits”, but of “daddy hangin’ from a tree”.

The musical ends with the boys wiping off their make-up and refusing to perform any more. We then see activist Rosa Parks sitting down on an Alabama bus – the action which became one of the most potent symbols of the civil rights movement in America.

Theatre has never shied away from the great issues of our time, and audiences need to be challenged and inspired, even consoled. As Whoopi Goldberg said at the time of the New York opening: “People are protesting that it shouldn’t be a minstrel show, this is too serious. What people don’t understand is that you have to bring information to people in a most invigorating way.”

And sometimes that information can invigorate the establishment too. In 2013, 24 years after the last of the real-life Scottsboro boys died, Alabama’s parole board granted posthumous pardons to the remaining three who had never seen justice in their lifetimes. They were finally exonerated 82 years after the original charge.

Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions

Next article
The power of art