Protestors Take Aim at Scottsboro Boys Musical

By Kenneth Jones
08 Nov 2010

Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo
Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Scottsboro Boys, the new Broadway musical that seeks to expose the evils of racism by using an outdated theatrical form — the minstrel show — to tell its story, was criticized on Nov. 6 by a group of curbside protestors at the matinee performance.

The protest at the Lyceum Theatre was organized by The Freedom Party, a black and Latino political group concerned about historical marginalization and racism. The New York Times reported about 30 protestors in attendance. They carried The Freedom Party banner.

"This racist play has reduced the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys case to a Step n Fetchit comedic, minstrel exhibition," according to a statement from the group. "It is this type of attack on our culture and history which makes the Freedom Party absolutely necessary."

Written by Tony Award-winning songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb and librettist David Thompson, with direction and choreography by Tony winner Susan Stroman, the musical tells of the 1931 arrest and multi-year incarceration of nine black teenagers for a crime they did not commit. The case made international headlines and was a flashpoint in Civil Rights history, inspiring the next generation to take strides toward freedom.



To expose the injustice in a theatrical way, the creative team borrows the racist and highly presentational conventions of the minstrel show (a now-defunct form), including the use of blackface (briefly), the cakewalk, sentimental Southern ballad and a clownish solo turn. White racists are freely lampooned in the work.

With the exception of the Interlocutor, played Tony winner John Cullum, the cast is made up of black performers. The minstrel tradition in the 19th-century featured white men in blackface makeup. Later minstrel shows featured black performers.

Stroman previously told Playbill.com that the goal was "taking something that was an art form a long time ago and spinning it on its head" to make greater political and social points. She noted that the characters eventually overturn the plan of the white emceee and have a kind of ownership over the experience.

"[The minstrel show] was a device — what was once known as a racially charged [form], or still known as a racially charged [form] — to tell a racially charged story," Stroman said.

An explanatory insert about the case, the real-life characters and the minstrel tradition is included in every Playbill at the Lyceum. It says, in part, "The Scottsboro Boys uses the free-for-all atmosphere of the minstrel show to provide a fitting backdrop for the racially charged media and legal circuses that surrounded the real Scottsboro Boys trials."

Read Playbill.com's earlier interview with librettist Thompson, on the topic of minstrel shows.