Why Am I Directing The Scottsboro Boys?
by Joe Calarco
Originally posted on Director Joe Calarco’s blog.
As to the question posed in the title of this blog post… It’s a very valid one. And it’s one that I have been asked by others, that Signature Theatre has been asked, and that I have asked myself over and over again.
Before I get to the answer, a little bit about the show itself.
The Scottsboro Boys is only one in a string of brilliant, socially conscious musicals with scores by the great John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman among the others). The musical has a book by David Thompson and is about the historic Scottsboro Boys’ legal case.
In 1931, nine young African American teenagers were pulled off a train in Alabama, falsely accused of rape, sentenced to death in the electric chair, and then spent the next 20 years in and out of the United States prison system. It is one of the most important legal cases in American history. And most Americans know nothing about it. I didn’t until I saw the original production in New York City. I saw it twice, Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre and then when it moved to Broadway, and it was one of the most thrilling pieces of theater I’d ever seen. But, look, it is a challenging piece. The show is framed as a minstrel show.
Now that you’ve pulled your jaw up off the floor – yes, you heard me right, the show is framed as a minstrel show. In terms of theatrical, storytelling, conceits, it is similar to what was done in Chicago, where the story is told and framed as if it were a vaudeville performance. The Scottsboro Boys is set in a kind of purgatory. The Scottsboro Boys are made to tell their life story nightly within the confines of a minstrel show performance, which was the theatrical practice of white male performers in the North who performed in black face and depicted how they imagined African American life to be in the South. A life they had absolutely no knowledge of. Minstrelsy created and perpetuated stereotypes of African Americans that have been truly dangerous historically. In fact, dangerous is too gentle a word— those stereotypes have been catastrophic in terms of how African Americans are treated in this country. Eventually, in order to make a living, African American performers created their own minstrel shows that they also performed in black face. Part of the genius of The Scottsboro Boys is that the writers have flipped the whole idea of the minstrel show upside down by having an African American cast also play all the white characters in the story – the boys’ accusers, their lawyers, their prosecutors, their judges – in the style of a minstrel show. But still, it’s very complicated in terms of how an audience is viewing this theatrical style. Many patrons may not understand minstrelsy’s very long, very complicated history. Many others may just find it downright offensive. While the entire idea and practice of minstrelsy is deeply unsettling, our brilliant dramaturg on the show, Sybil R. Williams, totally expanded the perceptions of everyone involved with the production concerning minstrelsy. I’ve shared some of her powerful thoughts below:
“There was something minstrel audiences did not see. They did not see how Africa took to the American stage and created what would be the first known American theater form. They would not see John “Picayune” Butler, a black French singer and banjo player who lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, whose musical prowess led him to participate in the first banjo tournament held in the United States in New York in 1857. They would not know that the banjo itself is an adaptation of the West African musical instrument, the kora. They would not see the juba, a dance with intricate steps performed without accompaniment except stomping, clapping and the percussive striking of the body. The dance is said to have originally been brought from the Congo by enslaved Africans. The dance becomes the “walkaround” in the American minstrel. They would not see William Henry Lane, who is credited as one of the most influential figures in the creation of American tap dance. Lane developed a unique style of using his body as a musical instrument, blending African-derived syncopated rhythms with movements of the Irish jig and reel. Lane’s melding of these vernacular dance forms is recognizable today as the foundations of the ever-evolving style of American tap dance. In witnessing the white gloved hands of the minstrel men, they would not see the beautiful gestures of the adowa dance from Ghana. It is a “dance of hands” performed sometimes with a white cloth meant to serve as intimate communication. Even when African Americans begin to perform in the minstrel shows and audiences saw new dances and comedy routines that the whites had not yet appropriated such as stop-time taps, the sand, and Virginia essence, they would not see the improvisation of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton building on syncopated rhythms that began with field hollers, and work songs, and the blues…creating a viable life, culture, and art from the wreckage of slavery and Jim Crow, that shines with the brilliance of the ancestors that sacrificed all that they had, knowing that they would indeed live on.”
You can read Sybil R. Williams complete essay on minstrelsy and how it is employed in The Scottsboro Boys here:
The American Minstrelsy: Remembering Africa, Birthing America by Sybil R. Williams
So The Scottsboro Boys framing device – its complicated history and the stereotypes it perpetuated – may make some audience members want to pull away from the show even as they are entertained by it. I did at times when I saw it. This is the art of Kander & Ebb along with David Thompson on this show. They take a difficult subject, drench it in an art form – musical theater – that is meant to entertain you, tell you an important story, and also make you examine what you’re being entertained by. The challenge for any production is how do you stay true to the brilliant conceit of the piece, honor the old school, unparalleled musical theater craft of Kander & Ebb, and still make sure your audience really does hear the story of what these 9 young men went through. As I said, not enough people have even heard of the Scottsboro Boys’ case, let alone the names of those boys themselves. And they were boys. As I’ve worked on it, I keep wanting to say “these young men.” But they were boys. The oldest was 19, the youngest was 12. They were boys.
We try to say their names as often as possible in rehearsal and anytime we talk about the show. Their names need to be said. Their names are only 9 on a long list that stretches back way before their story started in 1931 and has only been added to over and over and over since. So we need to say their names. Again, not enough people know their names. At least two websites I’ve looked at while doing biographical research list only eight biographies instead of nine, and both of these sources leave a different boy’s name off of their list as if leaving any name off was acceptable. And when you see photos of the boys together, only two photos I found identified them individually. They are usually just listed as “The Scottsboro Boys.” The two photos I did find with their names listed, disagree with each other about who is who. So I’m going to “say” their names again:
Their story is a difficult one. Their story is the story of this country. Their story is built on the racism upon which this country was founded, and it’s a story that has only been repeated over and over again since 1931. The evidence proving their innocence was overwhelming and yet they spent the next 20 years of their lives in and out of the U.S. prison system for a crime they did not commit. The Supreme Court overturned the verdicts twice and changed the laws of this country, though you could argue that the inherent racism of our legal system makes those laws ultimately ineffective. They were charged and wrongly convicted of a felony. If you commit a felony in this country, you permanently lose many rights including the right to vote. Many would say that the loss of this specific right has impacted the history of this country the most in terms of who our leaders are locally, regionally, and nationally. Today in the state of Alabama, where the Scottsboro Boys were charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for a crime they did not commit, close to one third of the male African American population has permanently lost the right to vote. Again, the Scottsboro Boys’ story, with different names attached, has been repeated over and over and over again. If you are convicted of a felony, you cannot get back the rights you lost unless you are pardoned. Only one of the Scottsboro Boys, Clarence Norris, was pardoned during his lifetime—in 1976, ironically by the then Governor of Alabama, George Wallace – one of the most racist and vile human beings to ever walk the earth. Again, that was in 1976. This show was first produced in 2010. The other Scottsboro Boys were not pardoned by the state of Alabama until five years ago in 2013.
Many people have asked why it has taken so long for The Scottsboro Boys to be done in the D.C. area in the first place. I can’t answer for other theaters, but for Signature the major reason was that for a while after the original Broadway production if you wanted to license the script of The Scottsboro Boys, you also had to license director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s original production that she created with her design team – set designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Toni-Leslie James, lighting designer Ken Billington, and sound designer Peter Hylenski – meaning you had to replicate the staging and the design that was done on Broadway. Again, I saw the production twice, and its theatrical vocabulary was breathtaking. I’m a firm believer, ethically (and as a proud Executive Board Member of the director’s union SDC) that if you’re going to replicate someone’s work, you should pay them, ie: license their production. In my mind, Susan Stroman’s staging was an authorship, and honestly for a long time after I saw her production, I couldn’t imagine anyone doing the show and not licensing her staging. But Signature has made its reputation by producing world premieres and by taking fresh looks at pre-existing shows, so remounting someone else’s Broadway production is just not something Signature does.
Recently, the requirement that you do the original staging if you produced The Scottsboro Boys has been dropped. When my boss, Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, told me that he wanted Signature to produce the show and he wanted me to direct it, I’ll be honest, while I thought it is a show that should be done, and a story that must be told, and that Signature should be the theater to do it, I did not think that I should be the person to direct it. We had long, difficult, in-depth conversations about this at Signature. The brilliant original production, with an almost all white creative team, was done only a year into the Obama administration when some of us still lived under the fantasy that we had taken fundamental strides when it comes to race in this country. Now, eight years later, when all illusions of that notion have been shattered, the show has an even deeper resonance. I certainly believe that we should join together to tell each other’s stories, and look, if I had to spend my entire career only telling stories of gay white men, I’d go off and become a history teacher or archeologist, like I’ve often fantasized about. But with this show, at this time, I was deeply curious and interested in how the show would be interpreted by a director of color. Back to the long, difficult, in-depth conversations… Eric felt that telling this very American story that deals with the very complicated issue of race in this country could only benefit from having different perspectives on the team. Valid. I heard him. I signed on. We knew the only chance we had of coming to any true understanding of the story was to fill the team surrounding me with incredible diverse collaborators who know way more than I do about this subject. As a white man, there are just certain things I will never experience and never know about compared to a person of color living in this country. Usually I think I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know, but before we even started rehearsals, I was very vocal with the cast and with my other collaborators about asking them to please let me know when I don’t know what I don’t know. They have all done so. And it has changed me and impacted the show only for the better.
I’ve never relied on a team of collaborators more than I have on this show. And I must name them:
Jared Grimes: Choreographer
Brian Whitted: Music Director
Daniel Conway: Set Designer
Sherrice Mojgani: Lighting Designer
Emilio Sosa: Costume Designer
Ryan Hickey: Sound Designer
Sybil R. Williams: Dramaturg
Kimberly Bey: Dialect Coach
Casey Kaleba: Fight Choreographer
Jade Jones: Assistant Director
Kerry Epstein: Production Stage Manager
Allie Roy: Assistant Stage Manager
Joey Blakely: Production Assistant
The cast has taught me the most. And I must say their names as well.
Jonathan Adriel: Andy Wright
Malik Akil: Charles Weems
Christopher Bloch: The Interlocutor
Chaz Alexander Coffin: Mr. Tambo
Felicia Curry: The Lady
C.K. Edwards: Roy Wright
Dewitt Fleming Jr.: Ozie Powell
Andre Hinds: Willie Roberson
Aramie Payton: Eugene Williams
Darrell Purcell Jr.: Clarence Norris
Lamont Walker II: Haywood Patterson
Joseph Monroe Webb: Olen Montgomery
Stephen Scott Wormley: Mr. Bones
Scean Aaron: Swing
Iyona Blake: u/s The Lady
James Joshua Crawford: Swing
They came into rehearsal every day with impeccable craft, a super human work ethic, and with wide open hearts. I’m a talker. Can you tell? And they taught me how to listen by always, always, speaking the truth to me and by asking me really difficult, really important, sometimes uncomfortable questions that could only be answered in conversation between all of us. That open dialogue allowed all of us to challenge ourselves and the production to really face the difficult truths of this story.
What has given our production its point of view, I think, is a question I asked myself and all my collaborators and it’s a question we ask ourselves in rehearsal every day—“Within the show, how do the Scottsboro Boys feel about the fact that every night they have to tell their own story as a minstrel show?” And then you have this parallel dilemma in the rehearsal room itself– How do you ask this cast, a cast of brilliantly talented triple threat performers – I mean honest to God triple threats – who all have a deep knowledge and understanding of African American history, eleven of whom are young African American men living in the United States of America in 2018. How do you ask them to go out eight times a week and perform this show? A show that is partly framed in a comic theatrical language that has historically stereotyped African Americans? Again Sybil’s dramaturgical work, stressing that without the brilliance of those early African American minstrel performers and their techniques, there would be no American Musical Theater, greatly empowered the cast. There are also many parts of the show written, and we’ve fully embraced playing them, as beautiful, honest scenes in these boys’ life. But I am a firm believer in genetic, ancestral memory – the idea that the life experiences of your ancestors are passed down to you in very visceral ways. So I can’t even imagine what it costs this cast to live in this show as they have and will continue to do, but they just said to me after a recent rehearsal that it is nothing compared to the costs paid by all the brilliant African American performers who came before them and the countless — countless— names, known and unknown, on the shamefully long list of African Americans who have endured and continue to endure injustice in this, the country that we live in.
So this show needs to be done. The Scottsboro Boys’ names need to be spoken. I’m going to “say” them yet again, and if you are so inclined, please speak them out loud?
We need to say their names. And people need to know their story and we need to tell it over and over and over again, until hopefully at some point we won’t see it repeated over and over and over again.
So… This has been an incredibly powerful, humbling, and educational experience for me. And I do think that what we are doing with the show will allow the audience to really hear this vitally important American story through the brilliant, wildly, theatrical vocabulary fashioned by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and David Thompson.
Please come see the show and let us know if we’ve succeeded.
I still really want to see Timothy Douglas’ and Jennifer L. Nelson’s and Robert O’Hara’s and Liesl Tommy’s and Kent Gash’s and Seret Scott’s productions of this show.