March 13, 2010

Facing Up to the Return of Black Face in "The Scottsboro Boys" and "Neighbors"

Who would have thought that in the age of Obama, black face and minstrel shows would be making a comeback?  But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two very different shows that use these dubious old theatrical devices. And so this is a longer-than-usual post because I want to tell you about both of them. One is a new play by a young African-American playwright that is part of the Emerging Writers series at the Public Theater. The other is the much anticipated musical that the venerable John Kander and Fred Ebb were working on at the time of Ebb’s death in 2004. Both works are problematic.

And that’s not just because the sight of an actor done up to resemble a black caricature makes me uncomfortable.  In fact, one of the things that first intrigued me about The Scottsboro Boys, the Kander & Ebb musical that opened at the Vineyard Theatre this week, was the idea of its using the prism of a minstrel show to look at a shameful but true story in this nation’s past. In 1931, nine black boys, aged 13 to 19, were falsely accused of raping two white women in a train boxcar traveling through Alabama. 

The case became a cause célèbre, going all the way up to the Supreme Court twice, and the youths were tried repeatedly—and repeatedly found guilty by all-white juries—throughout the rest of the decade.  After a while, their northern supporters, including the NAACP and the Communist Party, turned their attentions elsewhere.  Eight of the Boys were eventually released after long years in prison, some of that time on death row.  One would die in jail two decades later. (Click here for a full account of their story.)

Kander & Ebb have excelled at this kind of storytelling before: using a vaudeville framework to showcase the corrupting influence of celebrity culture in Chicago and a nightclub setting as the backdrop for the Nazi’s rise in Cabaret. But their creative collaborators on those productions were, respectively, Bob Fosse and Hal Prince, two of the great geniuses in modern theater. Susan Stroman is at the helm of The Scottsboro Boys, and although she’s a talented woman and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (I interviewed her once) she just doesn’t have the conceptual chops of a Fosse or a Prince.

And so this show’s minstrel conceit is halfhearted and half-realized. The show titillates but it doesn’t really illuminate, except to say that racism is bad. Which I hope all of us already knew. There’s a number set around the Boys’ fear of being railroaded into the electric chair but none that really gets at how their plight was exploited by all sides and turned into a kind of, well, political minstrel show. 

Odd choices are made throughout. The interlocutor, or the emcee, of a minstrel show was always the same race as his fellow players but here this central role goes to John Cullum, the only white actor in the cast.  There are other white characters but they’re portrayed by black actors who are done up as the minstrel stock characters Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo.  And the over-the-top way they're played undermines the sting of the real damage that was done.

The accusing women are played by two of the Boys, who drape scarves over their heads and perform in a high-camp style that might actually be appropriate for a minstrel show.  But other scenes are played with the this-is-an-important-musical sincerity that reminded me of Parade, Jason Robert Brown’s sober musical about the Leo Frank case in which a Jewish factory manager was lynched for allegedly raping and killing a young Christian girl in Atlanta in 1913.  That also-well-meaning show played for just 85 performances back in 1998.
A large part of The Scottsboro Boys' shortcomings rest with David Thompson's book. It doesn’t seem sure of what it wants to be.  At the beginning of the show it makes a point of saying that the Boys will finally be able to tell the whole story, one that will allow them to be the individuals they were instead of the collective symbol they came to be. But Thompson only gives us fragments and the boys are as blurred in his account of their story as they have been by history. 

The music is fine.  The opening number in which the actors perform a classic minstrel routine—complete with tambourines—made me sit up in my seat and the later ballad “Go Back Home” is lovely.  It’s already been popping up everywhere but if you haven’t heard it yet, you can by clicking here.  Yet, the score as a whole struck me as generic Kander & Ebb, except that the lyrics seemed less witty, a factor perhaps of Ebb’s absence. 

I’ve no complaints about the performances. Brandon Victor Dixon gets the most to do as the most outspoken of the Boys. He also gets to sing that ballad and he makes the most of both opportunities. The creative team delivers too, particularly the lighting design by Kevin Adams which has to work extra hard since Beowulf Boritt’s set is little more than a group of silver chairs that the actors rearrange to create the train, their cell and the courtroom.

Most critics, with the notable exception of the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, have raved about the show (click here for a sampling of those reviews), the run has been extended through April 18 and there was talk even before the opening of a possible move to Broadway. But I was more impressed by Neighbors, the play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that ends its three week run at the Public tomorrow. 

As I said, it doesn’t totally work either.  The playwright is young and that shows. But there’s nothing halfhearted about Neighbors. It centers around two families—the Pattersons, a black classics professor, his white wife and their teen-age daughter; and the Crows, a family of black actors whose members include Mammy, Zip, Sambo, Topsy and Jim.  As you can tell from the names, the Crows—they’re all in black face—are the racist stereotypes who populated minstrel shows and other forms of American entertainment through most of the first half of the 20th century.  

Jacobs-Jenkins and his director Niegel Smith have the Crows doing all kinds outlandish things, particularly in the play’s show-within-a show segments; in one, Sambo has sex with a watermelon.  It’s never really clear if the Crows are figments of Richard Patterson’s imagination but there’s no question that the playwright is serious about probing the ways in which all of us—black and white—are still struggling with the legacy of racism (click here to hear Jacobs-Jenkins and Smith discuss the play)

The argument that the interracial couple (expertly played by Chris McKinney and Birgit Huppuch) has in the second act is as brutally frank an expression of  how racism can creep into even the most intimate relationships as I’ve ever experienced.  It made me uncomfortable but it also made me nod my head in reluctant recognition.  If blackface is going to continue to rear it’s still ugly head, then it should be in the cause of a thought-provoking and soul-searching play like this one.


Anonymous said...

I recently saw the "On Stage's" critique of "The Scottsborough Boys".What immediately came to mind was Spike Lee's movie "Bamboozeld". Seems like some bitin' goin'on. lol

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a thoughtful review. The musical was conceived and carried out with the best of intentions, and tremendous gifts of all involved are impossible to miss. But it was an extremely complicated case, difficult to capture on stage or screen, and about the only essential part of the history that the musical gets right is that the defendants were completely innocent. It was simply that they had absolutely nothing to do with those two young women. No one did. In these upside down and inside out times, that's not insignificant--to get that right. But considering how much else was (and is) at stake, it isn't enough.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree that the show is a noble failure but despite my deep reservations about The Scottsboro Boys, I prefer that to a show that lacks real ambition. And, of course, I am forever grateful to Kander & Ebb for their great accomplishments in the past.

Anonymous said...

And thanks for your thanks. I completely agree with you. Better to have aimed high and fallen short than not to have aimed high at all. I met several of the magnificent cast members at B & Nobles a few weeks before the show. They (decades younger than I am) said that they had known very little about the case and its history beforehand. Yet they were extremely thoughtful about all that they had learned (and they were much more sophisticated in their understanding than the "book" itself). They'll take all that with them wherever they go, and that is something all theater lovers have to be grateful about as well. Best wishes.