In the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a display about minstrel shows sits about eight feet from a display on lynching. That’s all the explanation needed for why John Kander and Fred Ebb used the minstrel show’s offensive, 19th-century racist style to frame their musical “The Scottsboro Boys.”
That grisly association is a key reason the show has been slow to migrate to Washington and much of the rest of the country, despite its pedigree as one of the final works from “Cabaret” and “Chicago” legends Kander and Ebb, and despite the validation of 12 Tony Award nominations (but no wins) in 2010.
Lyricist Ebb died in 2004, but composer Kander and librettist David Thompson saw the musical through, with music ranging from the mournful ballad “Go Back Home” to a number involving an electric chair. What vaudeville is to “Chicago,” the minstrel show is to “Scottsboro Boys,” and Kander’s music makes often uproarious mischief with American idioms — ragtime, blues, cakewalks and more, with conscience-stabbing lyrics that knife into your ribs while tambourines shake with icy laughter.
The new production at Signature Theatre gives Washington a woefully belated chance to examine the intersection of minstrelsy and Jim Crow justice. It’s nowhere near as dazzling as it was in director-choreographer Susan Stroman’s hands, which is too bad: Showbiz and stereotypes are the song-and-dance project’s beating heart. But despite a cramped set and fussy staging, the daring and power shine through. It deserves to be seen.
Minstrelsy is a don’t-touch third rail, though, and despite the acclaim in 2010 for the impressive cast and Stroman’s staging, “The Scottsboro Boys” had closed by the time those Tony nominations were announced. Instead of a musical based on the 1931 case of nine black youths, ages 12 to 19, falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train, Broadway audiences flocked to “The Book of Mormon” and “Sister Act.” Protesters objected to the blackface, and reviewers were so uneasy that critic Jason Zinoman wrote a defense of the show in Slate asking, “Is the most ambitious new musical of the Broadway season racist?”
The answer: No, resoundingly.
“I can understand how a show like that can be tough for audiences to want to take in,” says Jared Grimes, who performed in early workshops of the show and is choreographing the new production now on stage at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, with a cast of 16 (plus eight musicians). “It’s just that the truth hurts sometimes.”
Exploring the difficulties of presenting the musical, director Joe Calarco begins talking about the show by reciting the Scottsboro Boys’ names: Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Charles Weems, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and the brothers Andrew and Leroy “Roy” Wright. Then he considers the challenge from the actors’ point of view.
“How,” Calarco says, “do you ask this cast of triple threat African American male performers, who have a deep understanding of history and are living in America in 2018 — how do you say to them, ‘Go out eight times a week and do a show where the theatrical vocabulary has historically stereotyped African Americans’?”
“I had a lot to consider,” says Chaz Alexander Coffin, who plays Mr. Tambo — the minstrel show’s traditional tambourine-shaking low comic figure — opposite Stephen Scott Wormley as Mr. Bones. (Reversing stereotype, Tambo and Bones play lampooned white characters throughout the musical.) “But I wasn’t going to pass this opportunity up. This is an important story, and we have a huge responsibility here.”
“Out of the minstrel show came all the stereotypes: Black men are dangerous, they love watermelon, they’re crazy, outlandish, obnoxious characters,” Wormley says. “The minstrel shows played in places where there weren’t a lot of African Americans, and that’s what people thought they were. That has followed us for years.”
Taking roles in “The Scottsboro Boys” has required some explaining to friends and loved ones. “They don’t want somebody in their family standing up on a stage shucking and jiving,” Wormley says. “They want it to be rooted in something real. And I have the type of family that if it’s not rooted in something real, they’ll be like, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
To help with context, Signature brought in dramaturge Sybil R. Williams, who briefed the team on the case and on the history of minstrel shows and contributed far more program notes than the company usually offers audiences.
“It’s a really interesting form to mine,” Williams says, “because on the one hand we cannot deny that the Negro caricature in minstrelsy has far-reaching implications. It probably even had a great deal to do with how the Scottsboro Boys were viewed. But if we look at the banjo, it’s an adaptation of a West African kora style. If we look at the tap styles that come later in vaudeville, we’re looking at the way Africans treated rhythm. If we look at the early stars of the pre-minstrel stage, we’re looking at African dance. The more you understand, it the more you can begin to unpack it.”
“I think the baggage is not just the minstrel show, but the story itself,” Wormley says. “For us, watching a show like this can be triggering or traumatic, because I walk out of Signature Theatre, and I’m in the same situation. I’m followed by the cops — all those things happen. It’s bringing up what you’re already dealing with.”
“We are the Scottsboro Boys,” Grimes says. “We’ve gone through certain things in life that put us in a position to understand the fear of what it is to be an African American young male in this society. There’s a responsibility that we have as young African American men to really project their voice, and project it in a way that is in line with truth.”
“It’s a true story,” says Wormley, whose performance highlights include anti-Semitic lyrics melodically rolling out of the mouth of a Southern attorney general. “And the material is the truth. They’ve put it into the minstrel show. But they’ve pretty much kept it true.”
The Scottsboro Boys Through July 1 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$110. 703-820-9771 or sigtheatre.org