Photo by Nile Hawver
On Saturday January 21st, 2017 I walked into The Roberts Studio Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts to see SpeakEasy Stage Company’s extended run of The Scottsboro Boys. The music and lyrics were tastefully crafted by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the team that has also given us Cabaret and Chicago. This production was directed by Paul Daigneault, the artistic director of SpeakEasy, with music direction by Matthew Stern (yay BU), and choreography by Ilyse Robbins. Truth be told, it was a spectacular show. The cast gave a full, energetic and precise performance and I could feel that this was their last Saturday night show, after this: one more performance. They gave it their all. The audience, I would say half of which was older, white theater goers and the rest relatively diverse in age, race, and gender was absolutely taken by the energy of the actors. However, there was another energy permeating the atmosphere, perhaps fueling room. The inauguration of 45 had occurred merely 30 or so hours ago and the political aroma wreaked throughout theater.
Kander and Ebb in 2010 sent to the broadway stage a true story of 9 Black males that were falsely accused and punished for the rape of two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. Apparently it did not do so well; it closed after two months. However, it’s New England premiere did exceedingly well. I have to believe that some of it’s success is due to the tense political climate of our current moment. A day after the first Black presidential family left the White House, and the mere sight of a Black body on stage singing and dancing carried political significance, regardless of the context.
We all trickled into the house, assuming we knew what we were in for, and without warning or announcement the show began. Shelaye Camillo, a brown actress playing The Lady crossed the stage. She was poised, graceful, and elegant, but also an air of weariness and exhaustion hung around her as she sat stage left holding a medium sized box. The sight of her garnered audible gasps from the house. I was pulled in. The show proceeded to unfold and I was taken on an educational, hilarious, sombering and inspiring journey. I got to see these black actors execute minstrelsy in a way that was subversive, intelligent and cringe-worthy. The entire show is a nod to the minstrelsy the plagues American entertainment and by doing so juxtaposes being thrown into the legal system while Black with being thrown into the entertainment industry while Black. Both systems operate in direct opposition to Black humanity.
Russell Garrett’s Colonel Sanders-esque portrayal of The Interlocutor was eerily charming, and inseparable from the many flawed systems established in our country by white men (capitalism, justice [politics and prison], entertainment, etc…). On the other hand, the Black actors hilariously portrayed the white characters necessary for retelling the story: the accusers, the lawyers, the judge. I could not help but think back to our discussion about the slaves mimicking the walk of the slave master as a joke for the ignorant white audience’s amusement. The white people in the house that night were indeed laughing, but I will say the people of color laughed a little harder. We knew what was up. It was was telling to note the moments of laughter throughout the show and observe who was laughing at what and who was not laughing at certain things. I found myself able to fully immerse in the humor of the show and rather accept the story as it is. In comparison, the white audience members seemed to be more immersed in the dramatic truth of the story and therefore had a harder time accepting the humor in the retelling of such a story. Though I will say, I did feel uncomfortable with the inherent “performative negro” aspect of the show. Watching The Interlocutor demand a tap number from these Black boys, I was unable at times to separate the play itself from the reality of doing the play. I felt bad for the actors that had to put on those shoes and tell that story. I imagined how difficult it had to be at times to take direction from a white man, in the actual doing of the thing and in the rehearsal of the thing. Perhaps because of the political atmosphere I was hyper aware of the Black actors, yes performing and telling a much needed story, but also doing this to put food on their table and the inherent “sell-out” nature of being a Black actor. I like to imagine that many of these things were discussed throughout the process.
I was truly struck with the end of the show and the message it left me with. The story does not end happy, the boys wing up either dead, or poisoned by their time in prison and unable to function properly in the society they are released back into. They gave us one last number, “Where are They Now?” and trickled off the stage. All the while The Lady had been a silent observer of the entire story and the audience had been given no link from her to the story. But the moment came when she was left onstage alone until Russell Garrett went over, playing a bus driver and asked The Lady to move to the back of the bus. Without standing or losing an ounce of status she says that her feet hurt and she will not move. The Lady became Rosa Parks in that moment and suddenly the entire thesis of the show hits me and I was in tears. This show ultimately left me with one call to action: resist.