“The Scottsboro Boys” is a stunning and chilling musical about racism in the 1930s

By Lucy Komisar

The Scottsboro Boys is a stunning, chilling and superbly performed play about racism in the 1930s. Who better to craft a political musical than John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the 1993 classic Kiss of the Spiderwoman, about the movie fantasies of a prisoner tortured by the Argentine dictatorship that brutalized the country nearly half a century ago. And director-choreographer Susan Stroman stages this in a cutting, jazzy minstrel style that takes irony to new levels.


To be able to make such important stories accessible to mainstream theater audiences takes great talent, and Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004) are masters at it. In the context it is odd to want to describe this play as vibrant and its numbers as smashing. This is an important production – though it seems strange to say in the circumstances – a very entertaining one.

It is a fictional play based on real events, the program says. So I thought it important to check out the story against the facts.   Here’s what I found.

There’s no dispute that a fight started between young black and white men who had jumped a freight train headed for Huntsville, Alabama, in 1931. The blacks threw the white youths off the train – or maybe they jumped. The whites contacted authorities about an assault, telling them that two white women remained on board.


At the next stop, the police arrested nine blacks, 12 to 19 years old, for assault and attempted murder for throwing the whites off a moving train. The white women, Ruby Bates, 17, and Victoria Price, in her early early to mid-20s, unemployed millworkers from Huntsville, tried to run away, but were stopped by the stationmaster who asked if they’d been bothered. Bates said they’d been raped – each by six blacks. Doctors examined them two hours after the alleged attacks and found semen but no signs of violence.

An examining doctor told the judge in private they hadn’t been raped, but said he was just out of medical school and couldn’t testify for the defense or he would never practice. The judge did not inform the defense. Later, a blacks’ lawyer argued that a medical examination of Price showed no living sperm, which would have argued against recent intercourse. A doctor testified to minor scratches and bruises.

Price had been jailed for violating the law on Prohibition and for adultery. During the first trial, the two women – witnesses for the prosecution — were kept in jail, facing possible vagrancy or prostitution charges. Two of the blacks testified that they had seen rapes. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, says the rapes were not proven or disproved.

The left made a cause cél¨bre of the case. Ruby Blake recanted, and the Communist Party brought her north. She testified that there hadn’t been a rape, that Victoria had told her they might stay in jail if they didn’t say so. Blake wrote a note to her boyfriend that the blacks hadn’t jazzed her, the white boys had.

The black men would endure years of trial, convictions thrown out by higher courts, then more jail, a suicide, and years in prison.


In the Kander and Ebb show, given an astonishing and dazzling staging by director Susan Stroman, the story of what happens to the nine black is compressed and artistically portrayed. The jail cell is a collection of piled up metal chairs. The mood is a jazzy operetta. The dramatic vignettes of the story are interspersed with numbers of a minstrel show, which allows you to catch your breath between horrific events and adds the element of satire.


Reversing the blackface on white faces of minstrels, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) are black men who play evil white men. Bones is the attorney general. Tambo is a drunk defense lawyer. John Cullen in a white suit is the white interlocutor. The three are memorable in their roles.

Stroman’s musical numbers are eloquent. They include a macabre dance around an electric chair. And a revival song sung when the Supreme Court demands a new trial. Price (Christian Dante White) and Bates (Sean Bradford) do a bit called Alabama Ladies. In Never Too Late, Ruby Bates (Bradford) tells the truth.

A New Yorker who replaces a local (unqualified) attorney, turns out to be famed defense lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (McClendon again), who had won 77 acquittals and one hung jury in 78 murder trials. Importantly, in this case, he would raise for the first time the exclusion of blacks from juries, which would get a landmark Supreme Court decision.   (White men, and no women,   as Brownmiller points out, were allowed on juries.)

McClendon as Liebowitz is very Jewish in a New York accent and black and white checked suit – a caricature that the Nazis could have drawn. The satire is sometimes unsettling. Indeed, the Communists had been accused of manipulating the case for propaganda, but Liebowitz was a registered Democrat who would go on to be a judge. Presenting himself and his political commitment, he does an ‘Al Jolson’ on his knees. The prosecutor’s ripping song about Jew money gives you the shakes.


The most astonishing – and historically accurate — part of the play is that one of the jailed men, Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), stands up to the accusers and refuses to cop a plea.

Dixon is compelling and moving in the role. In fact Patterson, the smartest and most defiant of the group, escaped from prison to Detroit in 1947. He wrote a book, The Scottsboro Boy. The FBI arrested him, but Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams refused extradition to Alabama. He was rearrested in 1950 after a barroom brawl that led to a death, convicted of manslaughter and died of cancer in prison less than two years later. The play’s notion that he died in an Alabama prison is wrong.

Why make a point about that? Because the case is too important and too historical to get it wrong, even in a musical.

In February, The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center opened in Scottsboro, Ala, documenting the trial and its aftermath.

The Scottsboro Boys. Book by David Thompson; lyrics by Fred Ebb; music by John Kander. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street. Opened   March 10, 2010, closes April 18, 2010. 212-353-0303.

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