How does one tell a deeply moving story which compels the whole society to soul search, through a musical? Writers Fred Ebb and John Kander and Director Susan Stroman have achieved just that. In the play, The Scottsboro Boys, they have given voice to each of the nine marginalized and disenfranchised Scottsboro Boys. So meaningfully is the story told that indeed each one of them “matters”, and together they will continue to impact societal consciousness for a long time to come; perhaps as long as grave injustices occur, where one lie can destroy many innocent lives.
The Scottsboro Boys is the true story of nine African-American boys who were traveling through Alabama, in 1931 and were falsely accused of raping two white girls. The hysteria which gripped the state might have ended in their summary execution at the hands of a lynch mob, but for the Governor of Alabama intervening and calling in the National Guard. In the previous 50 years, at least 3,000 African Americans had suffered death by lynching. A myth had gripped the nation that Negroes were lynched “because of their crimes against women”. In the case of the Scottsboro boys, two impoverished white prostitutes who were known to consort with black men, when questioned by the Sheriff, falsely accused the boys of rape, in order to save themselves. The nine boys felt fortunate that they did not face a lynching mob, only to be swiftly indicted in the subsequent trial, and sentenced to death by electric chair. The youngest, 12 year old Eugene Williams, was forced to sleep near the electric chair until he had nightmares every night. Samuel Leibowitz, a New Yorker employed by International Labor Defense, a legal arm of the Communist Party, took up their case, and over the next seven years,went through a series of appeals. Despite the fact that the original accusers, the two white women, recanted their testimony, the doctor who had examined them testified to no evidence of rape, and there was not a shred of evidence supporting the guilty verdict, the all white jury rendered guilty verdicts in trial after trial. Leibowitz persisted and secured the release of four of the young men and eventually four more.
Mass mobilizations around the world in response to the trials, raised the consciousness of the nation, and eventually led to the expanded right to counsel for all those who could receive jail time if convicted, and resulted in a court ruling that systematic exclusion of African Americans from the jury rolls violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The play is a moving tale of glimpse into a very unflattering piece of our national history. It also serves as a reminder that there are still those without a voice who are systematically marginalized and not afforded equal protection and justice. This is a profound societal issue; how can it be portrayed in a short time and in a musical? The staging and direction were simply superb. Using a set of chairs, the actors tell their own story as they organize the chairs to make a train, create a holding room, build a jail cell, a court house, and a solitary confinement room. In essence, the actors create their own set. The casting was amazing. Each and every single actor gave an excellent performance, their voices deep and resonating, and the music and words packed with meaning. The lyrics are still humming in my head. In “Zat so” – when Haywood Patterson is taken in front of the Governor and his lawyer advises him to confess to the rape and be guaranteed leniency and a pardon, Patterson refuses and the Governor says, “Mr. Patterson. I don’t think you heard me correctly. You people sometimes don’t understand what you’ve been asked. It’s because you don’t listen. So let’s try this again.”
The most outstanding scene in the play was a superb shadow puppet show in the background, with Patterson singing, “You better make friends with the truth.” Tragically, Patterson refused to trade a false confession for his freedom and spent sixteen years in a harsh Alabama prison, before he escaped. Later he was recaptured on another charge and died in prison. The play does complete justice to the tragic and soul- wrenching tale of the nine Scottsboro boys. If you see only one play this year, make this the one. Click on the link to book your tickets – http://www.act-sf.org/1112/scottsboroboys/index.html .