By Nayaba Arinde, Amsterdam News
This musical depicts one of the most horrific episodes of injustice in American civil rights history, when 1930s Alabama saw fit to falsely accuse and sentence to death nine young Black boys for the rape of two white women. Their names were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charley Weems, Eugene Williams and Andrew Wright. Their ages ranged between 12 and 19 years old.
“We are going to shut down this so-called play. There are no Black people who should be paying to see this minstrel show. It is an insult,” said Councilman Charles Barron, as he led the Freedom Party demonstration outside the Lyceum on Saturday. “You think we want to have a musical about Jim Crow and the ‘Strange Fruit’ that era produced?”
Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the show, which opened at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., in July. The musical officially opened on Broadway on Halloween, October 31, at the Lyceum Theatre.
Dancer, singer and cultural activist Nana Camille Yarbrough saw the show on Tuesday night. She was disgusted. “The American minstrel show was created in the early 1800s by European American entertainers,” she said, “who cruelly distorted the language, dance, song, humor, style, physiognomy and performance forms of our enslaved ancestors.
“Today, that insult, that cruel distortion, is carried forward in the Broadway musical ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’“
Yarbrough added, “And, yes, there was blackface at the end.”
On March 25,1931, facing charges of prostitution and vagrancy in Alabama, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates claimed instead that they had been assaulted by a group of Black men. Mere weeks later, on April 9, 1931,after an all-white jury convicted nine Black teens of rape, a white judge sentenced them to death. It took years and immovable dedication to save the nine and eventually get them exonerated.
This is the backdrop to which some genius decided to base, write and produce a musical. To compound the error, the show, written by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, uses the minstrel tradition as a dramatic vehicle to tell the story.
“This ‘musical comedy’ makes a mockery of an historic travesty of justice with total disregard for the humanity and suffering of the judicial lynchings that have marred the history of the United States then and now,” said Amadi Ajamu, a Freedom Party spokesperson. “Cite the ongoing struggle for justice and reparations for the ‘Central Park Five.’ Five teenage boys who served up to 15 years in prison for a rape of a white female Wall Street broker they did not commit…We cannot stand by and allow this show to continue without standing up in resistance. It is an atrocity and should be shut down immediately.”
While Stroman did not make a scheduled interview, actor Coleman Domingo did talk to the Amsterdam News.
“I play Mr. Bones, one of the end men in the standard minstrel show. He is a white Southern bigot.”
There is no pan stick though, no white face, Domingo admits. “It’s a deconstruction of the minstrel tradition.”
Responding to the Freedom Party’s ongoing protest, he said, “It seems to be a controversy not based on anything. You can’t have a protest by the Freedom Party unless you saw the show. It’s really unfortunate because the piece is pursuing dialogue about race and history.
“You must at least see the piece,” said Domingo. “They are more enraged because it is a white creative team. They think the Black actors have gone into this blindly, but we all had a part in creating [the piece] and believe 100 percent that this is the best way to convey the horrors of the Scottsboro Boys using aspects of the minstrel form. We actually deconstruct the minstrel form. We are actively trying to tell the piece with integrity compassion and love.
“In order for the Freedom Party to come to the table, you have to know what is being served. I just wish there was a dialogue.”
Barron was unmoved. “We don’t have to see the play to see that our history is being mocked,” he said. “Several of our supporters did see the play and brought back an intelligent analysis of what they saw. I don’t have to see the play to see what this is. Others who are not even with us came out and were outraged.”
According to Domingo, the daughter of Clarence Norris (one of the nine) and his grandson came and “loved and appreciated the show. Denzel Washington came last night [Tuesday] and said he truly believed in the show. We’re not using the minstrel form to make fun. Minstrel was used to make a caricature of Black people. We’re not doing that. The Scottsboro case was presented as a minstrel show, as entertainment. We show the nightmarish quality of racism.”
When AmNews reporters and readers have gone to the show, reports have come back that the majority white audience laughed at points they found incredibly offensive.
“We’re not saying people should laugh at this,” said Domingo, adding that there is no accounting for what a person finds amusing. “We are saying that people should look at this as the circus atmosphere [around the case].”
Asked if some topics, like being falsely accused of rape, the prospect of the electric chair, Jim Crow and associated issues, were off limits in terms of a musical and comedy, Domingo replied, “Well, you have artistic license,” and said the show was far from a comedy, but “we couldn’t handle it if it was told in the dramatic way. You have to see the show to see why we do what we have.”
He went on to say, “A discussion about race is so difficult.” In any production, scenes are set up where the audience is supposed to laugh or applaud. However, the actor said that if the audience is laughing at the end of a scene telling a poignant point about racism in 1930s America, “then I know they didn’t get it.”
Defending his colleagues, Domingo said, “We’re not just actors happy to have jobs. Some of us have long careers. We have made choices. We are in accord that this is the right way to tell this .”
Domingo determined, “We have to be intelligent and have as much integrity as we can. We are all very aware of our responsibility—even the 12-year-old actor.”
Asked if he would meet with the Freedom Party, Domingo offered, “The whole company would be open to this.”
“The issue is why Black actors would be cast in something so blatantly disrespectful,” said Barron. “I’m not going to financially support something that I think is blatantly disrespectful of our history. Look at the marquee before you even get inside the theater. ‘Alabama governor—a 1000 laughs,’ ‘Nine Black boys dancing.’ You have a minstrel show about an electric chair and a brother going up in smoke. During the protests about ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ Christians didn’t tell each other to go see the film before they demonstrated. Anyone who thinks something is an insult to their culture shouldn’t financially support it.”
Professor Farah Griffin, the director for the Institute of Research and African-American studies at Columbia University, has been approaching the play with great trepidation. Griffin has not seen the play yet, but says she has concerns about the play being done in this form. “This story is so complex, and this is such a strange choice of material for a musical or even a straight play.”
Griffin plans to see the play because she feels she needs to view it to be able to discuss it on an intellectual basis, but she is not looking forward to it. “I am familiar with Domingo’s work, so I will hold my nose and go see it,” she said.
Griffin also wonders why the producers did not reach out more to scholars for feedback on the production. “With [the Broadway production of] ‘Fela!’ there were a number of efforts to reach out to professors and students to involve us. I haven’t heard that from my colleagues. They haven’t been asked to be involved.”
Civil rights attorney Roger Wareham told the AmNews, “The fact that white folks would even consider producing the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ minstrel show should be a wake-up call to our entire community. We must confront every attack on our humanity, dignity and human rights. This play must close!”