John Kander, Fred Ebb, David Thompson, and I gathered together to collaborate on a new piece of theater. We wanted to create something truthful, something based on a historic episode.
So many times in the musical theater, you’re in a fantastical world. We wanted to create something based in reality.
In researching the greatest trials in America, the case of the Scottsboro Boys revealed itself to be one of the most famous and one that made an impact on the American judicial system and civil rights.
In 1931, nine black youths were pulled from a train in Alabama. They were accused of a horrific crime and tried in Scottsboro, Alabama. They became known to the press nationally and served as a symbol of a crippled promise of justice and equality in America.
Fred Ebb and John Kander were attracted to this story immediately. How is it possible that the lives of a group of innocent boys could be destroyed by a single lie? Kander and Ebb are known for writing about the underdog; “Maybe This Time, I’ll Get Lucky.” The music poured out of them.
The nine men were called “The Scottsboro Boys” as if they were a vocal group. It was important that at the end of our story, we see these young men as individuals.
Finding a way to present the show was tough. Just as Kander and Ebb had used vaudeville as a setting for Chicago, and a cabaret for Cabaret, and a dance marathon for Steel Pier, we had to find a framework to present The Scottsboro Boys.
During our research, we discovered many journalists referred to the trials as “minstrel shows.” Using this racist art form as a way to present this story was loaded with challenges, yet it became clear it would be the most apt and theatrical way to get the story across.
We decided to go down this path and turn the minstrel form on its head. This framework allowed the actors to take charge of the storytelling, and ultimately reject the form at the end. It also allowed Kander and Ebb to write a score that was both entertaining and heartbreaking. Fred Ebb always said, “If you don’t make it entertaining, people won’t listen.”
In the show, the actors used the customary semicircle of chairs to tell the story. By stacking the chairs in various formations, they transform the stage into a train, a holding room, a jail cell -- it is as if the actors themselves spontaneously create the set to tell the tale their way. At the very end, they literally deconstruct the set and the minstrel form and walk away from it.
Typically, minstrelsy used white actors to portray African Americans in negative and disrespectful ways. We asked ourselves, “What if it were a group of Black actors playing white characters?” The concept would allow this group of Black actors to not only play the nine young Black men, but to also play white women, white prison guards, white sheriffs, white judges – it would allow them to play parts they would otherwise never be asked to or allowed to play.
The choreography and staging are inspired by real episodes in the lives of these young men. The “Electric Chair” is a tap dance lead by the youngest of the nine – Eugene. He is partnered by the spirits of other young Black men who have come before him.
Historically, prison guards would put the Scottsboro Boys in a cell near the electric chair to scare them with the sound. This production number is a dream sequence in the form of a nightmare for Eugene. Nerve taps and the sound of fast metallic foot work exemplify the idea of electrocution. The guards chase Eugene with the chair. When he wakes up at the end of the number, he and the audience realize it was just a dream.
“Nothin” performed by Haywood, is staged honoring the movements of the famous Vaudevillian performer Bert Williams.
“Financial Advice” performed by Bones is based on the real transcripts from the trial in which Ruby Bates recanted her testimony.
“Make Friends with the Truth” gives a nod to the often-used shadow play in a minstrel show.
The show is peppered with real vaudeville steps from the 1930’s to give it an authenticity: the cakewalk, grapevine, back essence, shim-sham. I also wanted the audience to be reminded of society today, so I used contemporary silver metal chairs in the semi-circle instead of the usual bentwood chairs.
In directing the actors in this piece, I asked them to use what historic research we could find about each Scottsboro Boy and combine it with their own history and their own present lives. Tapping into their personal experiences brought a richness and distinctiveness to each character.
The Scottsboro Boys still resonates today as we struggle to give voice to those who are marginalized. For all of us who created the show, it remains the most rewarding musical experience of our lifetime. We know this musical starts a necessary conversation with each audience member and, more importantly, every time it plays, it brings the Scottsboro Boys back to life.
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Design by Ken Billington
Sound Design by Peter Hylenski
Musical Direction by David Loud