I was eager to see "The Scottsboro Boys," the Broadway musical onstage at the Ahmanson Theater. The show is based on a true story from 1931 about nine African American teenage boys falsely accused of raping two white girls--one of whom admitted the charge was not true--on a train. The boys were seized in Scottsboro, Alabama and, despite repeated attempts, unable to get a fair trial. It's heartbreaking how much they wanted to believe the truth would set them free. But it was not to be.
The stage production frames the story as a bawdy traveling minstrel show, a carnival spectacle. I couldn't imagine how that could work with such a dark subject and, for me, it mostly didn't. I understand that the show's creators wanted to make the audience uncomfortable, but, to me, the story is simply too tragic for buffoonery.
I'm especially sensitive about this because I lived in Scottsboro for two years and started school there. This was almost three decades after the events depicted onstage, but the town's character was still much the same; change came very slowly.
Scottsboro, in Northeast Alabama, is nestled against the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where thousands of white people lived in abject poverty (and, no doubt, still do.) As a first grader, my heart ached to see kids come to school barefoot in all but the coldest months. They smelled of the wood fires that heated their houses and cooked their food. Most of their parents were illiterate--couldn't even sign their names. Truancy was a big problem--a county employee trudged up and down the hills every day, trying to get kids to school. Worst of all, those of us in stylish clothes with professional haircuts sometimes got classroom privileges not extended to the others. I hated that.
As racist and behind-the-times as the rest of the South may have been, issues surrounding justice and equality were compounded in Scottsboro by nothing more complex than rampant ignorance. And yes, many of the law enforcement officers, all white of course, were like Rod Steiger's character in "In the Heat of the Night" - uneducated, bigoted men who made snap judgments, asked no questions and took no counsel. That wasn't merely a stereotype. When we lived in Scottsboro, the police chief was known simply as "Bean Belly."
Today, my older brothers and I don't remember ever seeing more than a handful of black people in town, so cloistered were they in their own drab neighborhood with their own churches, substandard schools and meager little grocery stores. They didn't figure into the life of the town except for the few white people who could afford maids or needed manual laborers. We did sometimes see black chain gangs working on the railroad when we ventured out of town.
It's easy to see how the Scottsboro nine could have been falsely accused and held for so long, despite their innocence. White people's words trumped anything black people might be permitted to say. Truth didn't matter. The boys' fate is unspeakable and yet, in that time and place, it's likely no one was surprised.
It's a tragic tale and all the more because it's true. It needs to be told to every generation to remind us of where we've been and could easily go again. But it needs to be told in a way that communicates its gravity. Cruel injustice is not a laughing matter.
Some critics have hailed the show's "lampooning style" as a metaphor for a justice system that was itself a sham. They say the satire puts the travesty in high relief and makes it into art. I can't seem to get to that point of view. Maybe because in Scottsboro, where I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, I also discovered that "liberty and justice for all" was just an aspiration, and not one that everyone shared. At six years old, I found that terribly disturbing. All these years later, I still don't feel like making fun of it.
"The Scottsboro Boys" at the Ahmanson Theater continues through June 30.
Production photo by Craig Schwartz from Center Theater Group