Theatre Review by Jerald Raymond Pierce
2.5 out of 4
There are some stories that are so powerful they transcend the storyteller. John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics)—in their final collaboration before Ebb’s death in 2004—along with David Thompson’s book present that story in their retelling of the events surrounding the Scottsboro Boys. It’s because of this that I sit here conflicted as I write. This story, especially today, especially in this country, needs to be told and has to be seen. The importance of the idea of standing up for what is right in the face of injustice, and drawing inspiration from those who stood before us while also becoming an inspiration for those who will stand after us cannot be oversold. The problem with Porchlight’s production of The Scottsboro Boys is just that: the production.
Director Samuel Roberson Jr. and choreographer Florence Walker-Harris clearly knew they had assembled a cast full of sensational talents—you could even call it an embarrassment of riches. But with great power comes great responsibility and Roberson and Walker-Harris abused the talent they were given. Kander and Ebb intentionally created this musical to be a minstrel show in order to juxtapose the wide eyes, big smiles, and showmanship associated with minstrelsy with the dark events of the Scottsboro Boys trials while exploring the racial undertones surrounding both. But, in an attempt to showcase every ounce of dancing prowess possessed by the cast, Walker-Harris and Roberson lost the core concept of this musical.
A key aspect of this musical is that this group of minstrels is told by the white Interlocutor (Larry Yando) to tell this story in a very particular way. The implication being that they tell this story often but aren’t always honest about the way it ends. This time is different. These performers want to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys their way. They want to tell the truth. This show should thrive in the tension created between the story the Interlocutor wants told (with a happy ending) and the dissent that grows because of the desire of the performers to tell the truth. However, this production fails to capture the minstrelsy ideal that the Interlocutor would want, so the dramatic tension is dissipated right off the bat. In fact, every time the script mentioned something distinctive to a minstrel show (something like doing the Cake Walk), it felt out of place as if it were in the wrong production. Essentially there’s an entire layer to this show that is missing from this production.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that directors are presented with a tall task when putting up this production. Most audience members will have at least a vague understanding of the events surrounding the Scottsboro Boys coming in (and those who don’t can get more than enough information from even the most cursory Google search). So, the director is charged with keeping this devastating travesty upbeat and even funny to prevent it from becoming an exhausting emotional weight on an audience. Kander, Ebb, and Thompson try to help by adding the comedy and dark irony of the minstrel show as a framing device. In doing so, however, they force the director to toe a dangerous line between racial commentary and racist mockery. In this case, Roberson plays it cautious by going away from most of the minstrelsy in favor of more modern musical staging and production values. It’s a safe choice, but it also fails to utilize what the brilliant writers had created to its fullest potential.
All of that being said, Roberson does find some very nice moments thanks to spectacular performances from James Earl Jones II (Haywood Patterson), Denzel Tsopnang (Mr. Bones), Mark J.P. Hood (Mr. Tambo), and Cynthia Clarey (The Lady). Jones’ character was originated on Broadway by Joshua Henry (who recently left his run as Aaron Burr in the Chicago production of Hamilton). Jones gives Henry a strong run for his money in his turn as Patterson. Every song showcasing him immediately grounds this show in a painful reality. He’s captivating every time he opens his mouth. Tsopnang and Hood hold the show together in a different way as they are the two actors who find the world of minstrelsy and perfectly capture the dark undertone to every joke made.
But it’s in Clarey that Roberson does his best work. I won’t give away the actual identity of The Lady—though, knowing who she is from the beginning actually made my viewing experience better, but I understand wanting to enjoy the discovery. Clarey and Roberson work well together to use The Lady’s presence on stage to capture what exactly is expected of the audience during the almost two-hour show: Watch this story. Watch this man Haywood Patterson. Watch him stand up for what is right. Learn from him and keep fighting for what is right. Every breathless moment of Jones and Clarey interacting, past and present silently connecting, brings out the importance of this play today.
Which brings me back to my conundrum. I want to scream from the rooftops to see this musical. See this musical because the singing is mind blowing and there are some phenomenal performances. See this musical because this message, this reminder of history and how we can learn from it is even more important now than it was when it came out in 2010. See this musical because “emotional wreck” doesn’t begin to describe how beautiful Roberson’s ending (with Ross Hoppe’s projections) left me feeling. But I can’t say this is a great production. I’m not even sure I can say this is a good production. It takes some big swings and has some big misses to match. But I can say this is an important production. And right now, it’s a production and story that this city, and this country, needs.
Porchlight Musical Theatre’s production of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys runs through March 12, 2017 at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago). Tickets can be purchased through the Stage 773 Box Office at 773.327.5252, online or in person. More information can be found at www.porchlightmusictheatre.org or at www.theatreinchicago.com.
Photos by Kelsey Jorissen
Jerald Raymond Pierce is a journalist, stage manager, actor, director, and playwright in the Chicago area with an MA in Arts Journalism from Syracuse University and a BFA in Acting from Ohio University. He also is a contributor to American Theatre magazine and an editor for ShowSnob.com. When he’s not spending unnecessary amounts of money on sports tickets, theatre tickets, and random travels, he’s probably ranting about Doctor Who, time travel, and the general merits of current television and movie writers.