by Michele Markarian
The Scottsboro Boys – Book by David Thompson, Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston through January 26th.
Despite the fact that you just know things are not going to go well for the nine boys on a train crossing the Alabama state line in 1931 (where, as a friend once told me, they are taught in school to call the Civil War “the War of Northern Aggression”), you can’t help but be mesmerized by Speakeasy Stage’s production of “The Scottsboro Boys”. It is a flawless production from start to finish, as well as a reminder of how much (and at times, how little) things have changed since then.
Drawn from a true story, The Scottsboro Boys tells the tale – with music and dance, in the form of an old-fashioned minstrel show – of nine black boys riding a freight train to find better opportunities for themselves. During a fracas with some rowdy white boys, two morally ambiguous white women are picked up by the police. The women invent a lie to escape further scrutiny; they claim that the entire gang of black youth – one of them as young as twelve years – raped the two of them. The police are more than happy to pin the blame on the young men, and take them to jail. The play follows the various trials of the incarcerated men, who, despite insisting that they didn’t do it and the eventual confession from one of the women that the rape story was a lie, remain stuck in a ‘guilty’ verdict.
This is a stunning piece to watch, because it is so cleverly constructed. With the exception of the chillingly effective Russell Garrett, who plays the white Colonel Sanders garbed Interlocutor, as well as two other white authority figures, the rest of the talented cast fills in the other roles. Darrell Morris, Jr. and Isaiah Reynolds, in addition to playing Scottsboro boys Charles Weems and Ozie Powell, portray the white female accusers, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates. With little more than a slight costume change – a kerchief, an apron – they transform themselves so completely that at the end of their incendiary song “Alabama Ladies”, the audience could only manage lackluster applause, as we were all so angry with the ladies for lying. Brandon G. Green and Maurice Emmanuel Parent play minstrel Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, respectively, as well as a variety of white government and legal figures (Brandon G. Green as Jewish defense lawyer Samuel Leibowitz is particularly convincing).
But the main event is the boys themselves. It’s hard to single anyone out, because the cast is uniformly superb. De’Lon Grant, plays Haywood Patterson, the de facto leader of the group, with a dignified, wounded anger (his solo number “You Can’t Do Me” brought tears to this reviewer’s eyes). Ozie Powell’s “Never Too Late” (sung as Ruby Bates) is rousing. Paul Daigneault’s crisp direction keeps things flowing between happy minstrel show and human rights drama. At the end of the one hour and forty five minute piece (performed without an intermission), the true payoff comes in the form of The Lady (Shalaye Camillo), who has been quietly observing and administering to the boys throughout. When she finally speaks, everything the boys and their Northern supporters have been fighting for comes to a wondrous head. Don’t miss this. For more information, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/