Digging Up Mr. Bones

By Robert Simonson
06 Apr 2010

In The Scottsboro Boys, Thompson adhered to many of the main tenets of a minstrel entertainment. The Interlocutor (played by John Cullum, the only white performer in the cast), Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are all on the scene. The action begins with the players gathering in a semi-circle, until stilled by the Interlocutor's decree "Gentlemen, be seated!" — just as would have happened 150 years ago. And the show culminates in the strutting victory dance knows as the cakewalk. Though it is difficult for the theatregoer to perceive, Thompson also tried to hue closely to the traditional three-part structure of a minstrel: the "walkround," in which the cast appears, gathers in a semi-circle, and engages in some punning badinage; the "olio," which features a variety bill of dances, song and lampooning "stump speeches"; and finally the "afterpiece," usually taking the form a long sketch or burlesque. "It's not something the audience is aware of," said Thompson. "But it helped me rein in all the elements in the story."

The writer necessarily departed from minstrel tradition in certain way. For instance, he was careful not to make the falsely accused young men figures of fun and ridicule. "The Scottsboro boys themselves are not brought into that typical minstrel world where they live within the stereotype," he said. "The goal was to make them as honest as possible." And the roles of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo are turned on their heads. "They played racially stereotypial characters" historically, said Thompson. "I thought, let's tip that over and have them play stereotypical white characters." In the show, Bones and Tambo play cartoonish interpretations of racist, white law enforcement officers and lawyers.

Minstrel shows would often contain a Stephen Foster-like tune, a melodic ode, like "My Old Kentucky Home," that would sentimentalize black life on the Southern plantation — "a song written by a white man for black men, imagining what they would sing about," as Thompson describes it. In Scottboro Boys, that song, "Southern Days," comes with a twist, with the Scottsboro Boys slipping in sweetly-sung lines about lynchings. (The writing team of the musical is also all-white and all-male, but they have social justice, and not merely entertainment, on their minds.

The most enthusiastic advocate of the minstrel show set-up may have been the one collaborator who is no longer around. "Fred embraced it," said Thompson of the lyricist, who died in 2004. He was well-known for his sardonic, darkly tinged outlook on life. "He always had a lyric ready for us to work with. He wanted to say something. He knew he had to entertain you if you were going to listen, but he still wanted to make his point."