The anti-racist musical that got rave reviews on Broadway is now enjoying a run in London’s West End too.
The Scottsboro Boys tells the story of nine black teenagers jailed for a crime that they not only didn’t commit, but never took place. It follows their long fight for justice in the racist US Deep South (see box).
“When I first read the script I thought it was one of the most daring and brilliant things I’ve read in a long time,” actor Colman Domingo told Socialist Worker. “And I thought the subject matter was unfortunately still very relevant when it comes to race relations and the justice system in America and around the world.”
The musical is the last collaboration by writing team John Kander and the late Fred Ebb—best known for the musicals Chicago and Cabaret and the song New York, New York—and directed by award-winning choreographer Susan Stroman.
Colman plays a series of white villains in the guise of Mr Bones—an inversion of the racist minstrel tradition of white performers wearing blackface. A minstrel performance typically included two “end men” in blackface—Mr Bones and Mr Tambo—as well as a white “Interlocutor”, a format that the Scottsboro Boys turns on its head.
“We use it to turn the tables, with two African American men playing all these dastardly white stereotypes,” said Colman. “The structure is needed because the horrific and convoluted events take place over a number of years.
“The writers knew they had to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys trial, no matter what. But it’s hard just to tell it straight on—people would only be able to sit through maybe 15 minutes of the horrors that happened to these young men,” said Colman.
“So just like with Cabaret, where Kander and Ebb talked about Nazi Germany but in a Cabaret, they were looking at forms of theatre that could make it engaging and entertaining as well.
“So they thought it was very interesting and very provocative to set a racially charged incident up against a racially charged form of entertainment. The moment they fell upon that form they knew it had to be the way to tell that story.”
The play is part of a reopening of a debate on the racism that runs through US history—but that is often hard to discuss. Coleman said that he didn’t learn about this horrific episode at all in school.
“The Scottsboro Boys case was really swept under the rug for many years,” said Colman. “I learned so much of our American history, but I did not know about this particular blot on our history.
“It’s so hard, I think especially for Americans, to discuss race,” said Colman. “Sometimes it feels as if it’s only the responsibility of people of colour to discuss race. But it’s an important subject for all of us, as Americans and as human beings.
“And the musical allows a platform for people to really discuss these things.”
The musical also emphasises the role of the Communist Party whose members faced the anti-Communist McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1940s and 50s.
“The Communist Party took the side of the underdog all over the world, so to me it came as no surprise that they were so active in helping out the Scottsboro Boys,” said Colman.
The musical has gone down well with descendants of some of those involved in the trial, including the daughter and grandson of last surviving defendant Clarence Norris, who died in 1989, and the daughter of their lawyer Samuel Leibowitz.
“They were all really moved and taken with the piece, they were very proud of it and the interpretation of the story,” said Colman. “They were I think especially proud that the story was being told because it’s never been told in this way.”
But for Colman, the success of the Scottsboro Boys has been as much about today’s US as its history.
“Unfortunately it is still so relevant,” he said. “Since we began this journey in 2009, we’ve had the Trayvon Martin case to remind us that there are still many sore spots when it comes to dealing with race in our justice system.”
Unarmed teenager Trayvon was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, in what the latter claimed was self defence. A jury found Zimmerman innocent earlier this year, provoking protests across the US.
“For me it raises the issue of the images and thoughts about this figure of a black man, what that incites. It raised the idea that just a black male walking down the street with a hoodie on, on his way home, that would incite questions, that would incite violence.
“That would incite this unarmed young man being killed, and then for a jury in the south to find this man who killed him innocent.
“I feel like my presence as a black man in the world is always under scrutiny.
“I’m never really seen just for the content of who I am. Immediately there’s a lot of thought put onto who I am as a person, what my background is, what my education is because I am a black man.
“And I think that this musical will help everyone re-examine the fears, our own insecurities, and where they come from when it comes to the image of a black man.”
It’s a runaway success at the box office, but Colman also hopes the musical can help arm people to take on racism today.
He said, “I think the Scottsboro Boys musical is an opportunity to be engaged and really provoked to think and examine what’s going on in the world.”
During the Great Depression many poor people travelled to look for work by jumping freight trains, and usually the railways turned a blind eye. But when, in March 1931, a group of white youths said they had been attacked on a train in Alabama by some blacks the authorities stepped in.
The sheriff stopped the train and took everyone hoboing on it into custody. This included nine black men aged between 13 and 19 and several whites. The nine were not travelling together and most did not know each other.
But when the detainees were searched two of the whites turned out to be women. By travelling in such company they could be charged with prostitution. To avoid jail they were pressured into saying they had been raped.
All the black men were immediately charged. They were Olen Montgomery, aged 17, Clarence Norris, 19, Haywood Patterson, 18, Ozie Powell, 16, Willie Roberson, 16, Charlie Weems, 16, Eugene Williams, 13, and brothers Andy, 19, and Roy Wright, 12 or 13. The nine were held in Scottsboro, Alabama, and became known as the Scottsboro Boys.
A mob gathered and wanted to lynch them straight away. The sheriff convinced them to wait for a trial.
Within four weeks they had been convicted and all but the youngest sentenced to death. It was a process of legalised lynching.
The respectable anti-racist organisation the NAACP had not wanted to get involved in a controversial rape trial which risked damaging its reputation.
The Communist Party (CP) on the other hand took fighting racism more seriously than respectability. It made contact with the defendants’ families and supplied lawyers to organise an appeal.
The CP argued “that the boys can be saved only by the pressure of millions of workers, coloured and white, behind the defence in the courts.”
The national campaign built the reputation of the CP as the key organisation fighting racism.
And the campaign did save their lives. Within a year one of the women, Ruby Bates, withdrew her testimony, saying, “Those policemen made me tell a lie… those negroes did not touch me or those white boys.” She joined the campaign to free the nine.
Most whites in the south chose not to believe her. A retrial found the nine guilty again.
Shockingly the appeals had to continue. Eventually, four were released in 1937. The others were held until after the Second World War. Only one received a pardon during his lifetime.
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