Three Years After New York Premiere, Susan Stroman, John Kander and The Scottsboro Boys Bring Their Act to L.A.
By Evan Henerson
While it pulled in for little more than a two-month whistle stop on Broadway, the train that is The Scottsboro Boys has become a veritable express on the regional circuit, and the key members of the original creative team are not yet ready to disembark.
"You create a show and you feel very fortunate if you've affected people in the audience," director/choreographer Susan Stroman explained. "You can be in the back of an audience and see people put their arms around each other. This particular show starts a discussion after it's over, and that means the world to us."
So it's back to rural Alabama for the Los Angeles premiere of The Scottsboro Boys, which bowed earlier this month at Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre. Stroman returned to craft a new production — her fifth time at the helm since the show's world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre in the spring of 2010. She will also build the London production slated to open at the Young Vic in October. The Ahmanson run features all key members of the original design team. Composer John Kander took part in the New York rehearsals before the company headed West, and he will venture out to see the L.A. production midway through its four-week run.
"I miss them," the 86-year old Kander said of the L.A. actors. "Anybody working on this show will tell you the same thing. It's a very emotional experience bringing all these people together and watching them turn themselves into these guys."
Stroman's L.A. cast was a blend of "boys" from productions past and present, led by the Tony Award-nominated Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson. Christian Dante White, also from the Broadway company, returned as Charles Weems and Victoria Price, and several more came from the 2012 Scottsboro co-production between San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre (ACT). Their ranks included Hal Linden, who took over the role of the Interlocutor in San Francisco and re-upped for the Los Angeles run.
Linden, who made his Broadway debut in the original production of Bells are Ringing in 1958, said that the talent of the performers in The Scottsboro Boys is off the charts.
"I started out in musical theatre, and these kids today, they sing better, dance better and certainly act better than we ever did," said Linden, a Tony Award winner for The Rothschilds in 1971. "Maybe we set the pattern for them, but they learned from it and they are sensational. Watching Trent Kendall (Mr. Bones) and JC Montgomery (Mr. Tambo) do that opening number every night where they're dancing with the boys…they're not fooling around. Thank God they didn't ask me to do it."
Kendall — whose character, Mr. Bones, hops through a veritable grab-bag of lawmen, attorneys and prison guards — is a Scottsboro first-timer. He auditioned for the original company and has tracked the role of Mr. Bones ever since. Taking on the role that earned Colman Domingo a Tony nomination, Kendall has drawn praise from both Stroman and Kander for his clowning skills.
Any praise, he said, is hard-earned. "Stroman's team…I have never worked with more demanding, yet at the same time, more gracious and supporting people," he said. "They're taskmasters. They want it clean, they want it right, and they pull no punches about saying, 'No, we need to do that again and clean that up,' but the way it's delivered is not any way that strips you down or makes you feel judged."
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."
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