Review: “The Scottsboro Boy” (Porchlight Music Theatre)

The cast of “The Scottsboro Boys”/Photo by: Kesley Jorissen.

Show: “The Scottsboro Boys”

Company: Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave)

Die Roll: 9

At its most basic level, live performance of any story is a lie. Actors pretend as if they exist in a certain time and place, and expect us to buy in to their perceptions and expectations. Any scripted story is a manipulation; the audience is asked to imagine that the events unfolding before them have never happened before, that the outcome is not already planned, that the themes of the narrative are not super-imposed on us by the playwright.

John Kander and Fred Ebb play with suspension of disbelief in all their musicals, but in “The Scottsboro Boys,” they may have reached the outer limits of performance as a lie. In recounting the tragic history of nine young men falsely accused of rape, the authors ask the audience to endure a minstrel show in order to get at the truth of the story. Which is a misdirection. Because minstrelsy was nothing but a cultural lie, a performance of racist stereotypes and hoary jokes (often completed by white actors in blackface) that extravagantly claimed plantation life was fine and dandy, and that African American men and women did not suffer and likely even enjoyed slavery. In Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys,” the crucial tension between that myth and what these falsely convicted men endured does not quite reach thematic coherence. But the production does offer excellent performances and several cutting images, alongside a real-life miscarriage of justice that speaks to contemporary problems in the justice system.

Denzel Tsopnang, Larry Yando, and Mark J. Hood/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Of the nine men, Haywood Patterson (James Earl Jones II) receives the most attention from book writer David Thompson. He is arrested with eight other rail-riders, after being accused of molesting two white women, each played by one of the Scottsboro boys. He insists on his innocence, as racist jailers and incompetent lawyers sink their chances at a fair trial. He develops a mentoring relationship with his youngest cellmate Eugene (Cameron Goode), and he encourages his fellow men to stand up for their rights. As the Scottsboro Boys endure appeal after appeal, the Interlocutor (Larry Yando), along with Mr. Bones (Denzel Tsopnang) and Mr. Tambo (Mark J.P. Hood), orchestrate their interactions with the outside world, calling on them to sing and dance to minstrel tunes throughout.

Because the men are telling this story from beyond the grave, they cannot alter its trajectory, particularly under the influence of the white Interlocutor. Kander and Ebb musicals often treat the act of performance as a shambling, dead-eyed, ghoulish affair, and while director Samuel Roberson, Jr. aims to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible with the moments of minstrelsy, the robotic performance of his actors only chills about fifty percent of the time. I am unsure why this is so, as the music commands plastered on smiles and herky-jerky, dehumanizing gestures, all aptly performed by the actors. When it comes down to it, I wonder if the minstrel performances should not have been pushed even farther, into flamboyant grotesquerie, as is often done with the Emcee character in “Cabaret.” If we are physically frightened by the racist caricature, we can better understand how the men are commanded to act in order to make headway in court.

James Earl Jones II/Photo by: Kelsey Jorissen.

Jones as Haywood shines as the voice of righteous fury in “The Scottsboro Boys.” His early testimony number, “Nothin’,” provides both the requisite politeness required of him in court, but is performed with enough of a sneer that the audience is in on the injustice. Goode has a clear voice packed with innocence that makes his nightmares about the electric chair all the more horrifying. Tsopang and Hood have thankless roles as the Interlocutor’s collaborators, but neither shies away from their terrible jokes or terrible actions as several side characters. Likewise, Trequon Tate and Jos N. Banks as the lying white women excel at selfish, stardom-seeking behavior.

Andrei Onegin’s scenic design resembles a train car and a gallows, and it serves the small Stage 773 space well. Samantha Jones’ costume design evokes the 1930’s period while also commenting on the sameness of the men’s dress once they are imprisoned. Lighting designer Richard Norwood paints the stage in lurid and stark colors, depending on the monstrosity of the minstrel performance on display. The more horrifying aspects of the play are definitely elevated by the design elements, even if the production as a whole could have gone farther and shown how lies dehumanize and destroy us all.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The Scottsboro Boys speak truth, but show business demands lies.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”