Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the Kander and Ebb musical, The Scottsboro Boys. It was fantastically done, and it was a pleasure to watch my Musical Theatre professor, Maurice Parent, shine. From the talent of the wonderful cast, to the breath-taking choreography and excellent artistic design, to the brilliance of the musical piece itself, this show took its audience on a poignant journey. It’s no wonder the production is receiving an extended run.
The most captivating part about this show is its use of the minstrel show. It fiercely and brutally confronts racism.
However, only knowing the historical context of the show, I was taken aback when the show began and a tall, white, southern man told us we’d be enjoying a story of injustice in the format of a minstrel show. How could such a horrific milestone in history be presented with such a cavalier form of entertainment? Then I soon realized that this show turns minstrelsy on its head.
During this time period, it was taboo for black performers to play white characters, yet not vice versa. With an entirely black cast, with one exception, they take that very thing that was seen as taboo, and lampoon those who did the very same to them during this time period. The result? A world where the arrogance of white power is emphasized and impossible to ignore.
White people often claimed blackface as a friendly way of portraying black people, but the stereotypical caricature that came out of it was dehumanizing, disrespectful, and racist. It was shocking and breathtaking to see the boys reclaim the blackface as their own in the final act of the play.
The minstrel show ended up being a very apt and appropriate way of telling the travesty these 9 innocent men endured. I also think that this production in particular was especially effective for the audience SpeakEasy was presenting this show to. As I sat in the middle of the audience, I noticed I was almost completely surrounded by older, upper-class, white people. I question how the show may have been perceived by the audience, had Kander and Ebb written the musical in the style of a show with more straightforward plot devices and narrative. The minstrel show is so in-your-face. This show is so in-your-face. And it needs to be. It is often very difficult to get through to an audience of a certain color (or lack thereof) and tell them that their ancestors, well, fucked up.
On the surface, we see a lot of smiling and tap dancing. But what I really saw on that stage was purity, innocence, reclamation, and storytelling at its finest.