Review by Shirley Hawkins
Considered as one of the landmark court trials of the 20th century, nine young Black men known as the Scottsboro Boys captured national headlines in the ‘30s when they were accused of raping two white women.
The Scottsboro Boys, which is currently playing at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles through June 30th, depicts the boys’ arrests, their sensational trials and the racial, judicial and political climate that swirled around them during their years of incarceration.
After fighting with several white hoboes as they were riding a railroad train looking for work, two white women who were also on the train come forward and accuse the nine men of rape. No evidence was ever found to convict the boys—their incarceration was based entirely on the testimony of the two women. Even when one of the women eventually confessed that she had lied and given false testimony, the Scottsboro boys remained imprisoned.
The boys were tried by an all-white Southern jury in Scottsboro, Alabama. The jury sentenced all but one of the defendants, who was 13 at the time, to the electric chair.
It is a jarring commentary of the times as the boys, most of who could not read or write, endured trial after trial as
national and international news blared headlines about the case and lynch mobs gathered outside the courthouse demanding to string them up on the nearest tree.
For such serious subject matter, the tone of the play is a surprise—it is consistently upbeat and almost vaudevillian in nature. There’s lots of tambourine shaking, minstrel singing and spectacular dancing—the show stopping number that ends the play even portrays the boys in sparkly costumes high stepping in Blackface. The musical numbers are absolutely stunning.
Actor Hal Linden, a Colonel Sanders lookalike who plays the Interlocutor, is a cake walking cheerleader and confidant who offers support throughout the boys’ incarceration. Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb breathe life into the lively musical numbers, including the touching and haunting “Go Back Home.”
As their incarceration wears on, the audience becomes acquainted with the boys’ various personalities—from the homesick and scared 13-year-old Eugene Williams to the rebellious Ozie Powell, who attacks a deputy and is shot in the
head, sustaining irreversible brain damage. Haywood Patterson, perhaps the most famous and rebellious of the boys, makes a prison break but is eventually recaptured. As the boys endure their lengthy incarceration, they encounter a myriad of emotions–including fear, anger and hatred—but what resonates is the collective strength the boys draw from each other. Their solid bond in the face of horrific circumstances is one of the most poignant and touching aspects of the play.
With the boys’ lives on the line, the Communist Party gets involved and hire defense attorney Samuel Leibowitz, a Jew, to represent the boys. The men were retried multiple times which vividly highlights the travesty of the U.S. Justice system at the time. Even though the state of Alabama officially pardoned the Scottsboro boys this past April after 82 years, hearing about the tragic outcome of their lives is hard to bear. After their release, four of the boys are recruited to appear in Vaudeville. One of the boys, Haywood Patterson, writes a book about his experience but dies of cancer. Another drinks himself to death and a third joins the Marines but eventually shoots himself.
The cast is superb as they belt out 18 musical numbers, and their acrobatics—including back flips and somersaults, are amazing to witness.
The Scottsboro Boys highlights a tragic chapter in American history—and emerged as one of the watershed events precluding the Civil Rights Movement.
Go see The Scottsboro Boys to relive a profound chapter in American history.
601 W. Temple Street in Los Angeles
Runs thru June 30th.
For tickets, call (213) 628-2772.