eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

Racism takes center stage in Signature Theatre’s ‘Scottsboro Boys’

“The tragedy of this are nine boys’ lives hopelessly, eternally interrupted, sent cascading down roads of terror and imprisonment,” says historian Wayne Flynt in the PBS American Experience documentary Scottsboro: An American Tragedy.

In 1931, nine black teens aboard a freight train passing through Alabama were falsely accused of rape by two white women and faced a lynch mob as they awaited trial in Scottsboro, Alabama. Within a few weeks, all nine had been tried by all-white juries and all but the youngest was convicted and sentenced to death. The case quickly gained national attention and advocacy from both the NAACP and the International Labor Defense, part of the Communist Party, setting off a series of appeals and new trials and leading to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ultimately strengthened the rights of criminal defendants.

The injustice toward the defendants, who were not exonerated even after one of the accusers recanted, prompted creative responses from the likes of poet Langston Hughes, author Harper Lee (some argue the case inspired To Kill a Mockingbird), blues artist Lead Belly and, in 2010, the musical theater duo that created Chicago and Cabaret. From May 22-July 1, Signature Theatre presents The Scottsboro Boys, a musical retelling of the legendary story and one of the final productions of John Kander and Fred Ebb; Ebb died six years before the musical’s Broadway debut.

“It’s a powerful story that I think a lot of people don’t know about,” says director Joe Calarco. “It really had a huge impact on how we live.”

The musical is presented as a minstrel show, an American predecessor to vaudeville wildly popular from the 19th century through the early 20th century that featured actors in blackface, promoting scathing racial stereotypes. Such a controversial format for a contemporary play—which sparked a protest when it opened on Broadway—makes responding to the show “tricky,” Calarco says. “That’s what I think is sort of brilliant about it, is that you’re getting the story and yet you’re also, again, being asked to look at how you view race and how you are complicit in stereotypes.”

In a period in American history marred by racial strife and inequality, from police brutality to the rise of white supremacy, Scottsboro Boys may hold special relevance with 2018 viewers.

“I hope the show will get people to talk about it and realize this is something that is part of who we are and it’s never not been part of who we are,” Calarco says. “We still have injustice repeated over and over and over against minorities in this country.”

In 2013, Alabama posthumously pardoned the three men whose convictions had never been overturned.


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