In yesterday's review of "The Amsterdam Avenue Theater Presents Direct From Death Row The Scottsboro Boys," there wasan erroneous reference to the NAACP. The civil rights organization mentioned in the play is fictitious.
The Amsterdam Avenue Theater Presents Direct From Death Row The Scottsboro Boys. Book, music and lyrics by Mark Stein; directed by Harry Bagdasian; set by Russell Metheny; choreography by Anne Reynolds Day; musical direction by Bob Davis and David Wonsey, musicians; with Walt Lockman, Kelly Kennedy, Ron Canada, Caron Tate, Jerome Huggins, Joseph E. Kelliebrew, Benjamin Wright and Michael Mack.
At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Nov. 16.
"The Amsterdam Avenue Theater Presents Direct From Death Row The Scottsboro Boys" isa play with an excess of title and a shortage of substance.
Mark Stein's musical fantasy, which opened Sunday at theNew Playwrights' Theatre, is based on the saga of the Scottsboro Boys, nine poor Southern blacks convicted of raping two white women aboard a freight train in 1931. Four of them were briefly lured into show business after their release from prison, and Stein imagines them doing a song-and-dance version of their judicial travails under the sponsorship of one "Alfredo W. Sigmund," a small-time New York vaudeville promoter.
This may or may not have been an idea rife with exciting possibilities, but playwright (and composer/lyricist)Stein has not found them. His notion is to alternate between the vaudeville show itself and a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war for control of the Scottsboro Boys, with the slimy promoter (Walt Lockman), a Communist Party functionary (Kelly Kennedy) and an NAACP leader (Ron Canada) as the tuggers.
The manipulation of a cause celebre by hypocritical opportunists is not the freshest of ideas. It has figured in plays and movies about the Scopes Trial, the Sacco and Vanzetticase, Joe Hill, the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other legal-political controversies. To his credit, Stein has struggled to keep his story out of these old ruts -- but the struggle shows.
In his desire to avoid thecliche of an idealistic liberal figure trying to win justice for the underdog, Stein has made his NAACP official, the Rev. Hoover Wakefield, so oily and underhanded that it is hard to see much difference betweeen him and his antagonists, although (we are told) he alone aims to free the Scottsboro Boys rather than exploit them. Otherwise, the characterizations are depressingly typical of the whole liberal docu-drama tradition. Once the promoter has sold the Boys on showbusiness, for example, he produces a prepared contract and tells them to "put your little signatures on that and we'll be in business."
Structurally, Stein has resisted the usual courtroom-drama format -- arrest, trial, resolution -- only to come up with a repetitive, confusing and uninvolving alternative. The key question is: Will the Scottsboro Boys participate in this degrading entertainment, or won't they? At first they won't. Then they will. Then they won't. Thenthey will. Then they . . . Well, only the playwright knowsfor sure.
In between all this mind-changing, we see scenes and songs from the show-within-the-show, where most of this production's meager charm lies. The liveliest episode has the two alleged rape victims singing about their rape on the witness stand, and doing an arm-and-arm finale with the Scottsboro Boys themselves. Here is a flash of the same comic flair Stein showed in his earlier "Pinnacle," also produced by New Playwrights'. And as an added virtue, this scene features Caron Tate, a terrific singer and performer who makes a funny (if familiar) bit out of repeatedly plucking a scarlet handkerchief from her bosom at emotional moments in hertestimony.
There are other talented people at work in "The Scottsboro Boys," but this is one of those misguided projects that tends to submerge rather than display its talent.