Scottsboro Boys Hit Broadway
A new musical chronicles one of the most important events in the South’s Civil Rights Movement.
by Erin Z. Bass
One of the most anticipated Broadway musicals of the season, “The Scottsboro Boys” opens at the Lyceum Theater in New York City on October 31 (tickets for preview shows are available now). If the name sounds familiar to Southerners, it’s because the musical is based on the case of African American teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama, who were wrongfully accused of attacking white women in the 1930s. According to the recent book “Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail: An Illustrated Guide To The Cradle of Freedom” by Frye Gaillard, “Scottsboro was the scene in the 1930s of one of the South’s most heated civil rights controversies… The trials of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women not only resulted in a national debate but raised an international outcry.”
The story goes that on March 25, 1931, the boys (pictured with their attorney on the left) hopped on a train headed for Memphis and got into a fight with a group of white boys. The white boys immediately reported the fight to the authorities, and at the next stop in Paint Rock, Alabama, a group was waiting for the black boys. They were taken to jail in nearby Scottsboro. Meanwhile, two white girls on board the train were questioned by authorities and claimed they had been raped at knife and gunpoint by the black boys. Victoria Price and Ruby Bates were of questionable morality, but their claim spread quickly. Twelve days later, the boys’ trials began. A panel of all-white jurors overlooked contradictory testimony by the women and a lack of physical evidence against the boys. Sentences were handed down and all but the youngest boy, Roy Wright, who received a mistrial, were declared guilty. The sentence was death and the execution date set for 90 days later, the shortest amount of time allowed.
As the NAACP and the Communist Party got involved to appeal to the Supreme Court, the group came to be known as “the Scottsboro boys.” The governor of Alabama, then B.M. Miller, received protests from as far as Switzerland, Cuba and France, and the Bates girl finally admitted that she and Price had made up the story. Four of the boys had all charges dropped, but they had already spent six years on death row without a trial. Four more were either paroled or pardoned, but the remaining boy, Haywood Patterson, was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in prison. He later escaped and was caught by the FBI. At the start, the boys’ ages ranged from 13-19, but by the time they were free, most of them had spent their youth in jail.
The musical version of “The Scottsboro Boys” opened off-Broadway last year and is the final show for John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, known for “Cabaret” and “Chicago.” Presented in the style of a minstrel show, it begins with its sole white cast member introducing the production. “The Scottsboro Boys” goes on to depict the train ride, fight, false accusations and trials and incarcerations of the boys through song, high-kicking dance and vignettes for lead characters, who wear only white after their imprisonment.
Last week’s October 7 preview got great reviews, from the score to the cast and staging. Not everyone seems to agree the minstrel theme works though. Theater blogger Kevin Daly said this in an October 8 post: “The use of minstrel techniques is brilliant, but I’m curious how other audiences will react. Even this first night preview crowd of family, friends and well-wishers seemed uncertain how to respond at times.” Daly went on to discuss how “The Scottsboro Boys” handles the difficult issue of race. “Many musicals dealing explicitly with race relations in America have come under controversy, even if written under the best of intentions,” he says. “Many of these shows fail to get to the heart of the matter, offering weak platitudes and stilted optimism instead of actually addressing the problems of racial injustice in America. However, this show is different from others in one respect: it’s absolutely unflinching, unsentimental and uncompromising. It is at times, uncomfortable and unsettling to witness and there times when a number ends when you might wonder whether or not applause is appropriate.”
Alabamians may not be proud of this moment in their history, but they should be proud that its message of equal rights has made its way to the stage. For Southerners planning to visit New York through next spring (the show calendar on broadway.com lists dates through Feb. 27), don’t miss the chance to see “The Scottsboro Boys.”