ARLINGTON – “The Scottsboro Boys," a play about one of the great miscarriages of justice in the U.S. legal system, is onstage at the Signature Theater in Arlington and could not be mounted at a more appropriate time.
Based on a true story about nine African American teenagers accused in Alabama of raping two White women on a train in 1931, the landmark set of legal cases stemming from the incident dealt with racism and the right to a fair trial. With the disproportionately high number of unarmed black men being murdered today by police and the resultant Black Lives Matter movement, the play is a history lesson in the way the legal system operated in the Jim Crow South.
Directed by Joe Calarco, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical is framed oddly as a minstrel show, with Stepin Fetchit grins and demeaning vaudeville humor, but to its credit, surprisingly pulls it off.
For instance, the show’s zany comedy and musical numbers drive the masked humor which even includes a ditty on being fried in an electric chair. Behind the exaggerated stereotypes, however, the audience feels the horror, humiliation and gross injustice experienced by the black teens, even though there was medical evidence to suggest that they had not committed the crime. In addition, one of the accusers later recanted her story.
It was on March 25, 1931, when Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, Clarence Norris, Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Haywood Patterson, Eugene Williams and Andrew and Leroy Wright, were illegally riding a freight train traveling from Chattanooga through northern Alabama on its way to Memphis while looking for work. Poor and mostly uneducated, they were among several white hoboes on the train when an altercation ensued.
According to testimony, one of the white teenagers claimed that it was "a white man’s train,” and reported the fight to a local sheriff who deputized a posse. The black teens were arrested along with two white women, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, who were posing as boys. The teens were accused of rape and taken to the nearest jail in Scottsboro, AL.
The play opens with a character named the Interlocutor, who introduces us to these facts, a seemingly fatherly figure, dripping with southern old boy charm. Ably played by Christopher Bloch, one quickly recognizes the character represents the face of white racism, as he invites the audience to join the "fun” as the orchestra plays the “Minstrel March.”
The upbeat “Commencing in Chattanooga” introduces us to the teens played by Jonathan Adriel, Malik Akil, C.K. Edwards, Dewitt Fleming Jr., Andre Hinds, Aramie Payton, Darrell Purcell Jr., Lamont Walker II and Joseph Monroe Webb. All outstandingly portray the teens whose eagerness would turn into horror that morning as their fates would take various paths.
These paths were impacted by a variety of individuals, namely racist judges and law enforcement officials, and Stephen Scott Wormley and Chaz Alexander Coffin are excellent as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the two lead minstrel characters in the play. The African-American actors play white villains who high step and tap dance one moment then viciously beat and demean the teens the next, seamlessly changing costumes as quickly as their characters.
“The Scottsboro Boys” features one female actress and Felicia Curry is the epitome of dignity as The Lady who becomes a silent witness and mother figure to all of the suffering and pain that the boys endure over several years while imprisoned and undergoing several trials. This includes lynch mobs, death sentences for eight of the teens, aged 12 to 19 and a sentence of life in prison for the youngest.
“The Scottsboro Boys” plays through July 1st and effectively and powerfully portrays a shameful era when the US legal system failed many poor African Americans in the south. As Haywood Patterson, Walker is both eloquent and defiant as the one teen who dies in prison 21 years later, refusing to plead guilty and accept a plea bargain so that he can gain his freedom.