Digging Up Mr. Bones

By Robert Simonson
April 6, 2010

David Thompson, librettist of The Scottsboro Boys, talks about the defunct American theatrical form of the minstrel show, and how it functions in the new Kander & Ebb musical.

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"It began in a conversation with John and Fred and Stro," started librettist David Thompson, explaining how a minstrel show came to be the highly unusual framing device of the new Off-Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys.

John, Fred and Stro are, of course, his collaborators: composer-lyricist John Kander, the late lyricist Fred Ebb and director-choreographer Susan Stroman. "And I think it was actually Fred who came up with the idea. You always start with what's the best way to tell the story. If it was 1931," — the year the musical takes place, the year the real events on which the show is based occurred — "what way would the Scottsboro boys tell the story, the only way to tell it? And the minstrel show idea came up."

Minstrel shows would have been as familiar to the Scottsboro Boys — nine teenagers who, in Jim Crow-era Alabama, were unjustly accused of raping two white women, and thrown in jail — as reality shows are to teens today. For roughly a century, from slightly before The Civil War to around the 1920s, minstrel shows ranked as mainstream entertainment, and their stock characters, like Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, and signature acts, such as the cakewalk, were widely recognized. "For a very long time it was an American form of entertainment," said Thompson. "It's where all the popular music came from."

Today, of course, the word "minstrel" is mainly known as a derogatory term, uttered to defame some activity, show or political spectacle as backward or racist. Thompson and his team realized that they would be facing an audience with little understanding of the history of the minstrel show, so they began The Scottsboro Boys with a piece of musical exposition. The opening number, called "Hey Hey Hey Hey!" lays out the ground rules of the minstrel show and introduces its characters. It acts as a history primer for the theatregoer. "Hopefully, that's all you're going to need," said Thompson. "What we're finding is the audience is willing to go on this journey. But as we use the form, we also let them know we're using it to serve the greater story of the Scottsoboro boys."

Minstrel shows began around the 1840s. A collection of sentimental songs, dances and comic sketches, they purported to be a depiction of black life in the South. The earliest shows were performed by northern whites, who donned blackface and executed outsized stereotypes of African-Americans. As the form solidified, certain steady characters emerged. These included the Interlocutor, a very correct, white-faced master of ceremonies, and his "end men" Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, foolish sidekicks in blackface who would engage in wordplay and banter with the Interlocutor, and take on various comic personae during the show.

After the Civil War, minstrel shows became more lavish, with larger casts, sets and showy costumes. More critically, they began to be performed by black people, who adopted the same stereotypes and cliches established by their white predecessors. The wide and lasting impact of minstrel performing styles can be seen in such major 20th-century performers as Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, as well as movie musicals like "Swing Time" with Fred Astaire and "Holiday Inn" with Astaire and Bing Crosby, which featured then-acceptable musical numbers performed in blackface. Minstrel shows were also very popular in England. And minstrel-derived expressions like "That Takes the Cake" and calling an easy task a "cakewalk" remain part of the everyday lexicon.

For Thompson, the free-for-all-like atmosphere of a minstrel show seemed a fitting backdrop for the media and legal circuses that surrounded the real Scottboro boys. "There was something about the events around the trial," he said. "There were all these crazy things surrounding the trial. This is the filter that their truth would have to go through to reach the public."

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."