After seeing the Kander and Ebb musical "The Scottsboro Boys" at the Guthrie, a critic reflects on its use of minstrelsy.
Scientists tap toxic substances for medicines. Some blacks use the pungent N-word with endearment, to much confusion and consternation.
Can minstrelsy help undo the racial stereotyping it embedded in our culture?
That is a question raised by "The Scottsboro Boys," the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical that is up at the Guthrie Theater for two more weeks before heading to Broadway.
The musical is inspired by a notorious miscarriage of justice. In 1931, nine black teens on a train in Alabama were falsely accused of raping two white women, a capital crime. During the 1930s, the young men repeatedly were tried and found guilty, with their cases getting precedent-setting hearings at the Supreme Court.
For all its clever stagecraft by five-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman and its notable performances by an adept company, "Scottsboro" is limited by its form.
Popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, minstrelsy was sometimes used by abolitionists to further their cause. But it was mostly the onstage companion to a virulent off-stage campaign to deny African-Americans their humanity and freedom. White men blackened their faces to play "darkies" -- a practice later taken up by some black performers -- reducing a people to stage slurs.
Stock roles on the minstrel circuit included dandy but ignorant "coons" who mangled big words; watermelon-eating Tambos who longed to return to plantation slavery, and animalistic Jim Crows. What claim could such cartoons have had on American citizenship?
"Scottsboro" sanitizes and, in its postmodern detachment, mildly subverts this history. Still, with its facile puns and stylized dancing, the show stirs up a welter of ghosts. Through its updated minstrelsy, "Scottsboro" cuts into old wounds. And it treats the mortal peril of its characters as peculiar entertainment.
I understand the creative team's desire to use Brechtian distancing so that we can process the ugly events with cool dispassion. But the technique is tricky. And it left me not just at a remove, but also alienated.
Which is a shame, because "Scottsboro" was crafted by the smart songwriting duo that gave us "Chicago" and "Cabaret." All three Kander and Ebb shows are anchored in actual events and set around the same decades. "Chicago," which takes place during Prohibition, has foxy killers Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly at its razzle-dazzling core. "Cabaret," set in a nightclub in a Germany being taken over by Nazis, orbits British singer Sally Bowles, American writer Cliff Bradshaw and the Emcee.
"Scottsboro" defendant Haywood Patterson, given a Paul Robeson-esque depiction by Joshua Henry, is the closest we come to a protagonist. Otherwise, these "Scottsboro" figures are remote and undeveloped; the "boys" age but do not otherwise grow in the show.
While I appreciate the challenge of making nine defendants fully realized in one theatrical evening, the "Scottsboro" characters could be far better distinguished, especially since some of the defendants were strangers to each other. We do not learn enough about the musical's cast to care deeply about them -- an anonymity that implies it is not important to get to know them. (One of the "Scottsboro" young men says at the end, "No one knows what happened to me." Really?)
If works that excavate our past are to be revelatory and transcendent, historical personages have to be filled out. We need to have some window into their roiled souls in order to understand them as humans as opposed to stick figures.
After seeing "Scottsboro," I felt like someone who had gone to visit a ransomed relative. You have to be nice to kidnappers holding your kin.
The claims on my feelings were made by the gifted cast, including versatile Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, charismatic Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo and dignified Sharon Washington as a silent witness.
Still, their efforts remain captive to a loaded form.
A story like this merits a Sophoclean treatment, and should be rendered for what it is -- an epic tragedy. It's telling that the "Scottsboro" creative team believed that it needed a presentational filter -- and one that denies us empathy, that theatrical fundament -- to tell this story about the railroaded young men.
Many writers have countered entrenched archetypes and historical ciphers with complex human portraits. Playwright August Wilson's epic cycle, for example, is full of finely drawn individuals, including frustrated one-time baseball player Troy in "Fences" and God-challenging Herald Loomis in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Novelist Toni Morrison's oeuvre is masterfully peopled by such distinct characters as Sula, the outcast and rebel regarded as evil by other members of her Ohio community; Pecola Breedlove, a girl who wants to be someone else so that her rough life would be easier in "The Bluest Eye," and runaway slave Sethe, who is haunted by the ghost of the child she killed to prevent her from having a life of captivity ("Beloved").
I wish that "Scottsboro" was as complete as any of these or even as the aforementioned masterworks by Kander and Ebb. The success of this new work could have made the team's historical trilogy a total triumph while also transforming a toxic episode into something affecting, even sublime. Sadly, this updated minstrel show, including an entirely gratuitous application of blackface, reduces these characters to caricature -- a result that mires the musical in the muck it seeks to master.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390