Friday, June 10, 2011

Truth Can Hurt, Even When Tap-Dancing

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon in 'The Scottsboro Boys
Broadway's Tony Awards will be held this Sunday, honoring the plays and musicals of the 2010-11 season. Although nominations usually include some surprises – to the delight of journalists and theatergoers alike, most of whom hate being bored – this time the surprise was a juicy one. The long-closed Kander and Ebb musical 'The Scottsboro Boys' was nominated for 12 awards, second only to the likely winner, 'The Book of Mormon.'

Despite its pedigree – Kander and Ebb also created the legendary shows 'Cabaret' and 'Chicago' – 'Scottsboro' was not a Broadway success. There was plenty of speculation as to why, mostly centering on the show's subject: the horrible true story of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama. While they escaped the death penalty, they were jailed for years and most of their lives utterly ruined. The case did much to galvanize those who would begin organizing the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately bringing about the end of Jim Crow. Without knowing that 'The Scottsboro Boys' was a dazzling marvel, as vigorously entertaining as it was vigorously unsettling, Broadway audiences shrank from it.

Not that other shows dealing with complex, uncomfortable history have failed to draw audiences. 'Cabaret,' for one. But when it comes to dealing with American history, and particularly race, people get squeamish. It didn't help that 'Scottsboro' was not only about a ghastly episode of history, but used a ghastly musical format – the minstrel show – in which to tell the story. Minstrelry has the dubious distinction of being the first truly American theatrical style. Wildly popular in the 19th century, minstrel shows consisted of white people in blackface lampooning (and insulting) African-Americans. By the time the shows were passing out of fashion during World War I, they were already creating discomfort. As such, the format works well for 'The Scottsboro Boys,' a show that seeks to inform and unsettle, even as it entertains.

It's the "inform" aspect that also raised some objections. Some people complained that the show overused its artistic license, particularly in its depiction of the central defendant, Haywood Patterson (played by the highly deserving Tony nominee Joshua Henry). The show suggests that he died in prison in Alabama, rather than tell a lie that might have set him free; whereas in reality he successfully escaped the Alabama prison, only to be reincarcerated years later in a Michigan prison on a charge of manslaughter, and this was the prison in which he died. The show might have avoided going into these details so as to maintain the character's nobility – or maybe because it's a bit convoluted for a coda.

Whenever you're compressing several years of history into a two-hour show (the Scottsboro trials went on through 1938), things need to be cut and altered. It's the old saying, "God writes lousy drama" – sure, truth is often stranger than fiction, but if it's going to work in an artistic medium, it needs some massaging.

Arguably, it wasn't what the show didn't include that really bothered people. It was what it DID include. There's a difference between taking a true story and making it wildly inaccurate to serve modern taste or a creator's prejudice, versus streamlining in order to more deeply explore the characters and events. It might be best to term 'The Scottsboro Boys' as springboard history. Yes, it's not exact, else it wouldn't be good drama, but it might propel audiences to study the real events of the case if they don't know them, or revisit them if they do.

Good drama makes hard choices. Some people shuddered at 'Scottsboro's' use of the minstrel format, particularly because the brilliant writing, directing, and acting made it so entertaining, which added to the discomfort, which heightened the thrill. This should have brought audiences in by the boatload – it's the rare show that includes electrifying numbers about electrocution, for a start.

'The Scottsboro Boys' is not a show that wants you to sit back and relax for two hours. It wants to touch you, to make you see real people and the pain inflicted upon them. It wants to make you think, and ask questions. Above all, it wants to make you angry. Anger, real anger, is what changes the world. When someone stands up – or, in the case of Rosa Parks, sits down – and says "No," it's like lobbing a grenade into the social psyche. The more people realize that, the more they might take that knowledge gleaned from history and apply it to modern injustice.

Which is exactly what also made 'The Scottsboro Boys' relevant to our times. In the space of only 80 years, what was accepted then has long been abhorrent. But modern America is also the sweet land of birtherism, Prop 8, and HR3. Clearly, a lot more "No" is necessary.

Just think about all the great theatre it'll make someday.

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