ANGER AND ATROCITY, PUNCH AND SWING
Dancing minstrels, catchy tunes, black men becoming mincing Alabama ladies or bow-legged sheriffs; a bluesy vaudeville band , chairs used as prison bars or execution gurneys. Maybe some atrocities do simply tip over into a zone of absurdity where the obvious proddings of satire are not enough , so only musical-comedy will serve. Provided, of course, that you have a Sondheim to chronicle Presidential assassinations, or John Kander and Fred Ebb to mock Nazism in Cabaret or murderers in Chicago.
That odd thought is inescapable when you consider this Kander/Ebb treatment of 1930’s Alabama racism and nine innocent victims. Nine black boys, riding the rails to find work, got into a scuffle with white youths at Scottsboro; two white girls (to dodge a prostitution charge) accused them of rape. With an all-white jury they had no chance; the sentence was death, even for two thirteen-year-olds. It was averted when the Supreme Court, after left-wing campaigns in the North, demanded a retrial with a proper defense lawyer. One of the girls admitted they had lied. For six years though, each fresh appeal met the same verdict from resentful Alabama whites: “Every time they say guilty, the Commies and the Jews get you boys another trial”. Four were released after six years, and conscripted into a vaudeville act in Harlem; other awkward compromises were made in the political tug-of-war between North and South, but nine lads’ lives were ruined. It was only this spring, in the age of Obama, that the Alabama Governor signed an Act formally exonerating them.
Grim, true, shameful. How to respond, except with joyfully defiant black energy? This British premiere, under its American director Susan Stroman, mixes local talent with Broadway performers like Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon and the magnificently comedic young James T Lane. It delivers that energy with a breathtaking punch and swing: shock and pathos, irony and sincerity swirl and mingle restlessly. The only white performer is Julian Glover, patriarchal judge and Governor; other whites – jailers, women , the New York defence lawyer Leibowitz – are created by the black ensemble in ironic reverse minstrelsy. The terror of the electric chair (the youngest wrote of living in earshot on Death Row) makes a violent strobing tap number. Domingo as the prosecutor has a hymn of hate against the “Jew money” funding the defence. Individuals emerge, notably the defiant Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe) who refused parole because he wouldn’t plead guilty.
Equally moving is the quiet presence of Dawn Hope as “The Lady”, drifting and shadowing in the corner of scenes. A subtle moment at the end shows us who she is and what she did after reading of the Scottsboro case. She’s Rosa Parks: who in 1955 – and in the closing moments of this show – historically refused to give up her seat in the “white section” of a bus. It was a turning-point for the conscience of America.
box office www.youngvic.org / 020 7922 2922 to 21 December
Supported by : Bruno Wang / American Airlines