Three Years After New York Premiere, Susan Stroman, John Kander and The Scottsboro Boys Bring Their Act to L.A.

By Evan Henerson
13 Jun 2013

Susan Stroman
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Regardless of the players, certain Scottsboro Boys company traditions carry over from production to production. Stroman asks each cast member to write out a short biography of his character and to present that bio during an early rehearsal session. There are gaps in the biographies of the nine young African American men who were pulled off the train in 1931, and not all of the play's characters are based on actual people, so the actors are permitted to invent aspects of their characters' bios.

Stroman has referred to the newspaper coverage of the time, and the fact that — even though they were the touchstones for a wave of social protest — the nine defendants were known as a collective entity and thereby further dehumanized.

"You knew the names of the judge and the jurors and the journalists, but they were always referred to as ‘The Scottsboro Boys' as if they were a vocal group or something," Stroman said. "It was important for us to make them individuals. For this cast, it worked particularly well because of who they are."

"What I can give these actors is the materials and the choreography and the blocking," she added. "Kander can give them wonderful music and (Thompson) can give them wonderful words to say. But, in fact, what makes this show rich is what they bring to it, their contribution. That's something I can't add. I have never worked on a show where the actors were so invested in telling a story."

Henry had Patterson's autobiography "Scottsboro Boy" to draw from. Most of the nine young men — ages 13 to 19 — didn't even know each other before they were all arrested en masse and falsely charged with raping two white women. Mr. Bones is a stock character in minstrel performance. In creating Bones' biography, Kendall said he thought about what his options might have been had he been born a few generations ago.

"I could have been a laborer or a sharecropper. Maybe I would have been in a minstrel because there was no other choices in entertainment," Kendall said. "Blacks weren't even allowed to perform on stage unless they were in black face. When I first saw the show, I thought, ‘You can bug your eyes out and you can be as offensive with this material as you want to as long as you take a moment to look at that audience and say, "I know this is completely utter bull."' That's a challenge."

At the start of every performance, the 13 members of the cast gather in the lobby, form a circle and take a moment to remember the boys who are the show's inspiration. At play's end, after a musical evening that includes on-stage beatings, degradation, minstrel and all manner of physical and emotional abuse, the actors make a point of saying kind goodbyes.

"We make sure to pat each other on the back and smile, just keep things light off the stage," Henry said. "You don't want to take something like this home."

Kendall agreed. "There are a couple of guys who are a little more sensitive and, just watching them, I see them have to shake it off because they get too far into it. I'm playing this silly character, but I'm wielding guns and throwing people to the ground and being abusive. I can't walk to the stage door and be so self-consumed and not say hi to someone or take a moment to say goodbye at the end of the night. You have to earn the right to be that ridiculous on stage."

View highlights from the Los Angeles production: