“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.”
So goes the count of the nine actors embodying “The Scottsboro Boys” in The Scottsboro Boys, the Tony-nominated musical about the infamous namesake case. It’s one of the many moments that highlights the objectification and dehumanization of incarcerated Black men, who are often seen as just a number in the system. With music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, a book by David Thompson, the musical, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, served as an opportunity to set the record straight on the miscarriage of justice nearly 80 years after it occurred.
On March 25, 1931, nine Black teenagers: Olen Montgomery (age 17), Clarence Norris (age 18), Haywood Patterson (age 18), Ozie Powell (age 17), Willie Roberson (age 17), Charles Weems (age 20), Eugene Williams (age 13), and brothers Andy Wright (age 13) and Roy Wright (age 19), were on a Southern Line train headed to Memphis when the train was unexpectedly stopped by authorities in Alabama. Also passengers on the train were two white women—Victoria Price and Ruby Bates—who, as a way to escape their own arrest for prostitution, told the police that the nine Black teenagers had raped them. This false accusation had (c)rippling effects, starting with the lives of the nine teenagers. They were immediately arrested and would spend over 10 years on trial and subsequently incarcerated.
Their court cases became a source of national interest, drawing celebrities and political parties to rally around them. Dubbed “The Scottsboro Boys” by the media, their tragedy was seen as entertainment. Through all of this, their case sparked protests and calls for justice—and produced two Supreme Court verdicts—making it an unofficial launch of the Civil Rights Movement.
Yet soon, the story—and “the boys”—were erased from most of America’s collective memory, as is too often the case with Black narratives. It was this erasure that motivated the creators to musicalize the story when they discovered it in 2000. They worked on it until Ebb’s passing in 2004, and resumed in 2008.
But wait— an all-white writing-directing team telling a Black story as a musical? Hardly a new concept for the theatre; Dreamgirls, Once On This Island, Ragtime, and The Color Purple are just a few Black stories musicalized by white writers. Still, the project drew criticism from audiences. Why? What was different this time?
The framing device was a minstrel show.
Blackface minstrelsy sits at the root of the complex and damaged entanglement of racial representation and entertainment. The premise of the undeniably racist entertainment form was to mock and objectify Black people through caricatures and stereotypes. While images of white performers like Al Jolson are often conjured when thinking of minstrels, it was such a popular form that Black performers, including Bert Williams and George and Aida Overton Walker, engaged with it as well. This dehumanization of Black people permeated offstage, adding to the continuing systemic injustice in America.
While the intention of The Scottsboro Boys was to deconstruct a minstrel show—to emphasize the inherent racism and flaws of the form—many took issue with the story being framed through the lens of a white writing team. For some, it didn’t matter that Stroman was a five-time Tony winner or that Kander and Ebb were musical theatre luminaries whose trademark is exploring complex history in a musical theatre format. Like all theatre, audiences’ reactions are informed by their own lived experiences and personal histories, and so, The Scottsboro Boys was a polarizing and controversial show.
On October 31, 2010, The Scottsboro Boys opened at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, in a season that also included The Book of Mormon—a decidedly more commercially successful show, yet it also has problematic racial representation. The Scottsboro Boys' cast of 11 Black men, one Black woman, one white man, and its all white creative and design team (save for Toni-Leslie James as the costume designer) were the focus of protests and criticism.
Now, one decade later, set against a backdrop of a divided America, a Broadway shutdown, and a pandemic, we find ourselves rigorously examining what stories we’re telling, who’s telling the stories, and how we’re telling them. Beyond the borders of the Theatre District, we see stories like Christian Cooper, George Floyd, and countless others who were victims of systemic racism and police brutality harken back to the injustices of The Scottsboro Boys case, and acknowledge that not much has changed since 1931.
To mark its 10th anniversary, Playbill dives into the creation of the musical with the people who made it. Hear from members of the cast, creative team, producing team, advertising team, publicity team, and a critic of the show as they share their memories of The Scottsboro Boys.
PART I: "OUR STORY BEGINS"
Susan Stroman (director and choreographer): We wanted to collaborate with [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb, and we decided that we should try to do something true or historical. Tommy [book writer David Thompson] came up with the idea of researching American trials. He came back with the “Scottsboro Boys.”
David Thompson (book writer): We found the actual [court] transcripts and the actual newspaper articles. We couldn't believe the language, the vitriol, and the anger that was part of those. The further we went into it, it became so fascinating, so important, so relevant, and so contemporary, because it was about this preposterous case of injustice.
Stroman: Kander and Ebb jumped on the story right away, because if you know them, they love to write for the underdog.
John Kander (music and additional lyrics): Since I’m old, I remember in the 1930s I would see the newspaper and almost every day there would be a headline that had something to do with Scottsboro. Then, little by little, they began to no longer be the focus. When the war began in Europe and then here, they sort of disappeared altogether. Our country has a real talent for looking the other way.
Stroman: It was important for Kander, Ebb, all of us, to create a show where [the Scottsboro boys] were all individuals. For Kander and Ebb, every single life mattered. That was very much a mission of the show.
Kander: We had these nine people who were simply lost. We became fascinated and fixated by the story. Tommy is a really good investigator, and the more facts that came out, the clearer it was that we needed to write about it.
Thompson: All the boys were trying to do was find a job—to find work on the Mississippi River—when they got on that train. All they wanted was to have a life. And here they were stripped of all that hope, these young men who had been as young as 13. They were the headlines around the world.
Stroman: It was a trial that changed the judicial system.
Thompson: [The trial] became such a battleground between the South and the North. It became about the depression. It became a whole flashpoint of so many things. It was such an intersection in America. You have the Communist movement, you have the growth of the early days of the NAACP, and it was all around these nine boys. They became pawns in a larger political landscape, and at the end of it, their lives were forgotten.
Joshua Henry (Haywood Patterson, Broadway): [One of the lines my character] said was, “Lock me away. Throw away the key, like I don't matter, like my life doesn't matter.” I remember the pause that I took after that moment. This was before the Black Lives Matter movement took shape. This line was written, compiled, approved, had the final say, by this white guy, Tommy. It was encouraging that there are people that get it, that there are white people that understand the need to say something like this and that this is how Haywood and these boys had been viewed.
Stroman: The idea of [framing the show as a minstrel show] came from our research that showed all the reporters were calling the trial a minstrel show. Whenever the Scottsboro boys would come in for a trial, they’d say, ‘Here comes the minstrel show! Let's start the minstrel show!’ As Ebb said, [the media] even called them “The Scottsboro Boys,” like they were a vocal group. That really gave Kander and Ebb a vehicle to be able to write songs. For Cabaret, they placed it in a cabaret. In Chicago, they placed it in vaudeville. In Steel Pier, they placed it in a dance marathon.
Beowulf Boritt (scenic designer): Obviously the idea of putting up a minstrel show makes your skin crawl. But if you take the power away from it, then suddenly it actually gives you power over the form. It’s a postmodern version of a minstrel show where it turns the form upside down.
A Look Inside the Set Design of The Scottsboro Boys
Brandon Victor Dixon (Haywood Patterson, Off-Broadway and West End): I got the script and I thought, “Minstrel show? What the hell is…"But then I read it, and very quickly I saw what they were doing, and I got pretty excited.
Colman Domingo (Mr. Bones, Off-Broadway, Broadway, and West End): I saw exactly what they were trying to do. They wanted to engage with artists who were willing to take that leap of faith and to wrestle with the themes of the play, with this form—this heated racial form of entertainment, which was the framework for this politically conscious, arresting piece of theatre.
Forrest McClendon (Mr. Tambo, Off-Broadway, Broadway, and West End): I had explored blackface minstrelsy in two previous productions and understood its subversive power—the power of the masks Black men are forced to wear.
Rodney Hicks (Clarence Norris, Off-Broadway and Broadway): I read the script and thought, “How can I be in this?” My audition song was “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago. I sang it as if I was a Black man trying to hail a cab, without doing any extraneous things. It was a whole three-act play.
Sharon Washington (The Lady, Off-Broadway and Broadway): My agent said, “You have an audition for a Broadway musical. You don't have to sing, you don't have to dance, and you don't really speak.” My response was, “Okay, and I would want to take this why?” And he said, “Oh, I don't know, because it's Kander and Ebb and Susan Stroman.” I said, “OK, so now I'm interested.”
Josh Breckenridge (Olen Montgomery, Off-Broadway and Broadway): I’ve always been obsessed with Stro’s choreography, so when I was singing “Commencing in Chattanooga” [for my audition], I jumped up on the piano. I had never done that in my life. It was one of those bold actor moments where you think, “They're either going to be shocked and appalled and weirded out, or they’re going to think that was pretty awesome. And I just remember Stro being like, “Whoa!” From that moment on, it was like, “I have to be in the show.”
Stroman: Ultimately, you look for kind of a fearless quality [in auditions], because we were going to go on a wild journey together.
Washington: [For my audition, I had to perform] one of Rosa Parks’ speeches. They wanted a real person within the performative world of this minstrel show and telling this story. I was the observer, kind of along with the audience, watching this unfold but also participating and sort of moving through it. I was kind of a lens.
McClendon: The key [of the piece] for me was Rosa Parks—since this was a minstrel show wrapped in a musical wrapped in her memory play—whose real-life advocacy for the Scottsboro nine is the heartbeat of the piece.
Washington: She's actually bringing the memory forward. You could always hear the "aha" moment of the audience. I just loved it. I get goosebumps talking about it. When [the bus driver] tells her to move, the only line she has in the play, is “No. Not no more.”
Thompson: In Rosa Parks’ autobiography, you really gain that sense of understanding of who she was as an activist because of the Scottsboro boys. She met her husband at some of the protests and would sit on the front porch of their house on the lookout, because she knew that the men were inside actually trying to figure out ways to support and bring awareness to [the case].
Washington: I did a lot of research about Rosa Parks and the women of the Civil Rights Movement. I was like, “Wow, there's so much of our history that we don't know.” Of course, the Scottsboro boys’ story itself, I remember a girlfriend of mine in eighth grade did a paper on them, and that was the first time I'd ever heard of the situation.
Henry: I remember thinking, “Is this a true story? Let me go Google up, let me go read,” and I was like, “Whoa, this actually happened. Why wasn't this in my history books?” It captivated me.
Breckenridge: Like most people, it’s a blip—maybe one sentence in our history books. It created so many firsts in the judicial system and was so historical that it's such a surprise that there's not more common knowledge about it. I was kind of ashamed as a Black man not knowing about this case.
Robin S. Walker (swing, assistant stage manager): I'm a Black woman born and raised in these United States of America, and I had never heard the story of “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Julius Thomas III (Roy Wright, Off-Broadway and Broadway): I knew nothing about it. My hiring was when I really delved in and was like, “Oh, we're talking about a linchpin moment of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Putting It On Its Feet
Thompson: The first day of the first rehearsal of the first workshop was on the Wednesday after Obama was elected.
Breckenridge: It was such an historic moment. The air was thick in that room. It was like, “We have such a responsibility.”
Jennifer Garvey-Blackwell (Vineyard Theatre’s former executive director): Doug Aibel [Vineyard’s artistic director] had worked with Kander and Ebb, and was always wanting to [do more with them]. When The Scottsboro Boys came up, we had a developmental workshop, and I remember Doug and I walking out being like, “We have to do this. We have to do this musical.” So we coordinated a presentation where we invited a lot of Broadway producers to enhance a production at the Vineyard.
Brett England (associate producer, National Artists Management Company): Barry Weissler sent me to cover it at the Vineyard, and I came back fully blown away. I was the one who kind of put us on the line for it because Barry hadn’t seen it, but, of course, Barry has a long history with Kander and Ebb, and Tommy. (Weissler is the producer of the long-running Chicago revival.)
Barry Weissler (lead Broadway producer, National Artists Management Company): With Kander and Ebb, what is unlike any of the other composers and lyricists, is they march to their own drumbeat. They took very unusual subject matter, fleshed it out, fulfilled the goals of the piece, and made it something classic. There's a style there—the lyrics, they speak directly to us. It feels like you're watching friends tell you something musically. They have direct conversations with the individuals in the audience, and even when they get profane and irreverent— which Fred [Ebb] could do very easily—it was home.
Boritt: Susan Stroman invited me to a stage reading of it at the Vineyard and I fell in love with it right away. It was [the type of musical] I came to New York to do. I love musical theatre with sort of an intellectual hook to it and a rigorous concept. It’s Kander and Ebb’s hallmark— it was within this entertaining format where the songs are really good and get your toes tapping. You're entertained and excited and enjoy watching it, and then you feel guilty that you're watching this horrible story and enjoying it that way.
England: I just thought it was so brilliantly conceived. I remember explaining it as if the way they framed it was that these men were almost unwilling participants in the retelling of their story. They were on this literal train that they couldn't get off. There were just so many layers of symbolism.
Thompson: The choices in the storytelling were audacious. Ebb said, “You can't take anybody to a dangerous place unless you entertain them.” He specifically referenced Cabaret. He said, “You can do it, but you just have to pull them into it, and you can't pull back. Because the minute you pull back and make it easy for that audience, you lose the right to tell the story.”
Dixon: How do you communicate all the kinds of things, the concepts we want to talk about, in a musical in 90 minutes? It means you've got to use a lot of different devices. It can't just be words. It can't just be music. It can’t just be set. It's all of it.
Steve Sosnowski (advertising account director, SpotCo): The tagline was, “Entertain the Truth.” That's what this play is about. It's about finding the truth, speaking your truth, holding onto your truth, and entertaining the truth. It was the perfect tagline.
Boritt: You're watching this horrible story told through this horrible racist form that literally had to be outlawed in a lot of places to make it stop being performed. In my research I found plenty of pictures from the 1950s of high schools doing their minstrel shows. Just a bunch of white kids in blackface.
Kander: [Minstrelsy] was the most popular form of entertainment in this country for 150 years, and it completely involved pretend-Black performing. America was more than complicit in this. America was part of a definition.
Dixon: You're not trying to do a minstrel show and honor minstrelsy. You're using the minstrel show as a device to reinforce the messaging of the show. It also echoes what the boys ended up having to do after they got out of prison.
Stroman: It was the deconstruction of a minstrel show in front of the audience and watching them walk away from a very racist art form. By the end of the show, all of the chairs were all turned upside down.
Borritt: Stro had developed the idea to do this very simple production with just chairs, because the tradition of a minstrel show was a semi-circle of chairs on stage and all the performers sat there on stage the whole time.
Stroman: The concept of the actors moving the chairs, and the chairs becoming a train or a holding cell at jail was to make it look like the actors took over the show so it was their show—that they built it.
Boritt: It allowed the performers— the Black men who are telling the story— to physically be in control of their world. They're telling the story of these young men who were utterly not in control of their world, who were dehumanized and put in jail and had the threat of execution hanging over them.
PART II: “IF YOU’RE GONNA TELL IT, TELL IT RIGHT”
Hicks: From day one, Susan Stroman said, “I cannot tell you what it feels like to be Black.” Those were the first words out of her mouth.
Christian Dante White (Charles Weems/Victoria Price, Off-Broadway, Broadway, and Young Vic): To this day, I use that creative team as an example of how if you're going to have an all-white creative team, this is what they should look like, and this is how they should be prepared. There were no microaggressions; they were respectful; they did their homework.
Kander: I think we were probably kind of naive about being white writers telling a Black story, because we thought we were all on the same side.
Dixon: The idea that only a person who has directly experienced something can communicate a meaningful artistic translation of that thing to an audience is not true.
Domingo: They created it with the platform saying, “This is yours. This is as far as we can go, but we need you to help us tell it.” They were very specific about making sure they had artists in the room who were going to interrogate the process, interrogate the work, and interrogate the text.
Breckenridge: I tear up thinking about how much work this white creative team put in, and how much love surrounded this project. They didn't have to put their hard work and soul and effort into this piece.
Domingo: They were not doing it to make a buck. They were doing it because they believed it mattered.
Washington: What I always said when we got pushback was, “Oh, we are part of the creative team. We are part of creating this story.” We absolutely were part of the creative team.
Henry: It was a really strange moment because the people who I had respected since I've been studying musical theatre were coming to me wanting to hear my opinion. When I was driving up to move to New York in a Penske moving truck, I turned on the radio, and [Kander and Ebb’s] “New York, New York” was playing. John Kander introduced me to New York. That was the respect that I had for him. [In rehearsals], I remember having these conversations with him about the song “Shout!” and he was like, “Does this line feel right? Does it feel authentic?” He would always want to do more. He was like, “If you want to come over to the house, we can sit by the piano. We can go through this.” He was like a child in terms of his hunger to explore this thing.
Thomas III: It really felt like a wonderful collaborative process. Stro didn't try to heavy-hand it and say, “Honey, you should be crying at this moment.” She left those things up to us and guided us. It created an environment where I felt so safe and so free to create as this very young artist.
Hicks: We spent two full days on that first jail cell to understand the energy, to understand the dynamics, to understand the culture of it. Stro asked, “What do you feel? How do you see this?”
Domingo: The climate that we're in right now, where we're looking for advocacy and partnerships? I think this was true advocacy. This is exactly what our advocates can do if they are so interested in telling a tale like this. No one had picked up the pen to write about these nine African-American boys in the musical form.
Nayaba Arinde (editor and reporter, NY Amsterdam News): They put our pain on display and were singing about it. It's not cute. It's not funny. It's not something to do a musical about. The vehicle was wrong. I thought it was insulting and highly disrespectful.
Breckenridge: Anybody’s wrongful thoughts on the leadership of our show and any steering us astray that Stro might've been doing is totally false. She was such a den mother and so open and so ready to receive us. I honestly think that we are one of her most loved show families.
Stroman: I felt that that collaboration with that group of men and Sharon is something I'll never forget. Actually it has made lifelong friends for us. It was such an intense process. We were living in emotional extremes, so it made us unbelievably close.
White: Stro took care of us. She set up the room for creativity and collaboration. The number one thing that I love about working with Stroman is that any idea that I have, an insecurity that I have, she always addresses it with respect and care and I always feel heard.
Hicks: We always felt safe. Every single day.
Stroman: We would listen to everything they had to say. You need to make the rehearsal room safe, so people will feel like they can try things and fall on their face and get back up again. It is important to make the rehearsal space very, very safe.
Domingo: We were in a place where we could just create this thing that we were going in wholeheartedly. Having a freedom to say, “You know what? This may fail. This could be an experiment that completely fails, but we want to do this.”
Thomas III: I got to watch, what I call him, “The Man of a Thousand Characters,” Colman Domingo, go through eight or nine different incarnations of one character. He would say to Susan, “I'm going to try this thing.” She’d reply, “Go for it!” Then the next day, he’d come back with something completely different and she’d say, “Let's try it.” I watched that over and over again.
Domingo: Forrest and I got the opportunity to play and embody these racist tropes of Southerners. It was a mind-fuck for people. They had to unpack, “Here's a Black man playing a racist white man abusing other Black boys. Then, at some point, he is also the anti-Semitic while another Black man playing a Jewish man.”
Breckenridge: It's almost nauseating to think about a joke that Colman or Forrest expertly spew out of their mouth [as the Southern characters]. The audience laughs and then says, “What am I laughing at?”
Domingo: We had to humanize these racists, because we were already playing the characters in a commedia dell'arte fashion. We truly had to find the emotional truth and understand why these people are doing what they're doing, why they believe these systems must stay in place, why they must feel that they must abuse someone else to feel powerful. I had to do the examination. It was painful.
McClendon: I came to this project as an educator, not as an entertainer. I’ve had more joy and success in the classroom with The Scottsboro Boys than I did onstage…I asked myself a series of questions, from age to zodiac sign. That was the key to [the Defense Attorney, Samuel] Leibowitz: he appears as a real person and also as a caricature in this piece, and the difference between the two is crucial. [Costume designer] Toni-Leslie James’, the sole Black member of the creative team, research was extremely helpful when it came to understanding the levels of reality in the piece.
Domingo: By doing that examination, it does, strangely enough, bring me closer to these people who pride themselves on being oppressors. You understand, “Oh, they're just afraid,” or, “They feel like they're going to lose something by you having something, by you being an equal.” We had to make each character as nuanced as possible then serve it up as a huge trope [to show] the absolutely outrageous racist anger.
White: [For Victoria Price], I had to stop judging her and looking at her as a villain. I needed to get to her emotional truth. What is she fighting for? Why is she lying? What's underneath all of that? Why is she the way that she is?
James T. Lane (Ozie Powell/Ruby Bates, Broadway and West End): In the Southern United States, if you've been there forever, you've never gone anywhere, and you've never done anything for generations and generations, you get what you get. Exposure to different cultures opens you up. [With Ruby, the defense] threw her some pretty clothes and gave her a little bit of money. She was away from Victoria for a long time and away from her influence. (She ultimately recanted her testimony.)
White: That's a part of Kander and Ebb's genius—it’s the razzle dazzle. [I couldn’t perform] Victoria Price as just evil. She has to be kind of likable, so it almost gets into your spirit and your soul. You’re emotionally connected to them even more so. It cuts deeper.
Dixon: It’s powerful because all of the tools are working to serve the earnest element. It’s all to accentuate the truth, to accentuate this concept of the power of a lie and the power of the truth in this construct. So even in the kind of the absurdity of “Alabama Ladies,” the beating you're taking from Tambo and Bones, it’s real. There is the duality of existing in the piece and consciously telling a story in the way The Scottsboro Boys is built and designed. There's a very conscious engagement from the players to subject themselves to the vehicle for the purpose of the story.
Boritt: One of my starting points for the show was the memory of stumbling onto the skeleton of a dead animal, and its rib cage sticking out of the ground, these kind of white bleached ribs. The emotional punch of seeing that and being freaked out by it stuck with me. It was similar to the reaction of The Scottsboro Boys story, this scary thing from the past that we were excavating in a way. That was sort of the root of that proscenium idea twisting off into space. These guys were stuck in purgatory or in limbo, they were trapped in a cage, and they couldn't get out.
Hicks: Stro never called us boys. She always called us men.
Thomas III: By the end of building the show, she had sort of stretched me to a place that I never thought that I would. I never thought that I would be a featured tapper on Broadway. She reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out everything.
Breckenridge: She didn’t try to bring her own tap to it. She gave Julius Thomas III, Kendrick Jones, and Jeremy Gumbs license to scat onstage. It really was a collaborative process. She sculpted the show, but she really gave the boys room to play and improv and make it a true Black experience.
White: There were boundaries, too. The way we handled the blackface, she had a specialist come in and teach us how to do it properly. We all did that together. They blocked off time in a rehearsal room for us to sit, do it, have the feelings, and talk about it carefully. They were not in that room. We had a moment to ourselves.
Clinton Roane (swing, Broadway; Roy, Young Vic): There were tears every single time. There was emotion every single time, and rightfully so. It’s a very heavy reality. We would definitely have conversations about it and emotions were respected and heard.
Lane: We talked about the history of blackface. We talked about putting on the makeup and corking and lots of things. Then after we put it on and saw each other, we took it off and chatted about it. Our hands were held every step of the way.
Breckenridge: It was bone-chilling. To see myself in the mirror with that on was heart-wrenching. It really dehumanizes you.
White: There was comfort in having my fellow cast members to the left and right of me going through that process, but it was emotional because it's such a dark piece of history. Some people burst into tears and some felt angry.
Henry: There was so much intentional care and time with which she handled that for us Black men in that moment, understanding what a huge moment in history it was.
Lane: How I got through putting on blackface was I had to think about those men at that time who were artists. If I know anything in my own person and about the love and the passion I have for my art, I can only imagine the love and the passion they had for their art. That was the way that they had to do it, that was just the way that it was done. Sure, they hated it. Sure, I hated it. But the love of the art and the love of making a living trumps all of how you feel.
E. Clayton Cornelious (swing, Broadway): To put that makeup on and think, “Oh my God, some people were forced to put this on.” It makes you think where our country came from and how we’re still dealing with the same stuff.
Thomas III: The blackface just didn't hit me in the same way that it hit everyone else. The taking it off was very symbolic in the show and it felt right, but I can't even remember the first time that we put it on.
Roane: I do sometimes wonder how it would have been done with a Black creative team. If a Black creative team chose to use blackface, would they’ve been seen as controversial? Would it have been boycotted as much or would it be seen as a strong artistic choice?
Lane: It’s not like we put on blackface and ran off to the sunset. We put on the blackface to take it off. That's why we put it on. We've taken the minstrel show and turned it on its ear and took off the blackface. We don't listen to the Interlocutor anymore. “I'm taking it off in front of you, white man. I'm done. I'm busting up this system.” We stand strong. But it’s hard for an audience to get past the blackface because of our history.
Henry: We're saying, “This is the way that it actually happened. ‘We'll no longer stand still, our hands in our pockets.’ We’re not just going to be here for your entertainment, listen to this story.” If we can hold them through those 90 minutes, we're reclaiming our time.
Hicks: Every person was seen by every person of that creative team. We were all part of this creative team. That’s why it was disheartening to hear people go, “Oh, well you have an all-white creative team.” And it's like, “That's so not true. What about us? We're all Black.”
Stroman: They had to make those characters come to life. I couldn't give that to them. I wouldn't presume to give it to them. We talked about tapping into their own history and tapping into their own contemporary life and then combining that with the historical information we had about the real boys.
Hicks: Susan Stroman did her homework. We came in and she had it all structured out. She knew. She said, “Now what's missing are the bodies and the souls.” Not just the Black bodies. We weren't Black bodies filling the shoes—the souls. We did a lot of talking. We did a lot of research.
Stroman: I had them write essays about their characters. I'll never forget that first day of sitting around in a big circle. They read an essay about why their character got on the train, where they were going, and what their dreams were. They had to write that in that character that they now developed.
Thomas III: [Derrick Cobey] and I played brothers in the show, so we sat down together and created the immediate backstory for our characters together. My character was very sheepish and very afraid. He had never been further than his own town, then here is this instance where all of his fears come to fruition.
Hicks: I still have [my essay]. I chose to write it out phonetically how he would write it because he couldn't read or write.
Thomas III: It deepened the work in a way that allowed us to humanize these guys. That was always our goal—to humanize them and to pay honor to their story and bring them back to life. That deepening step was the genius of Susan Stroman.
Henry: I knew that Stro was learning from it, too. It was clear that this was an exercise for everyone, including the entire creative team, to hear all voices and all perspectives.
Jeremy Gumbs (Eugene, Broadway): It definitely helped me feel a bond with Eugene because I learned so much about him. I was finding the similarities between us. I found out one of the stories of why “Electric Chair” became a number.
Dixon: “Electric Chair” is such a brilliant idea. It's some of Stro's—and she's done a lot of brilliant work—most brilliant storytelling work physically.
Boritt: The “Electric Chair” dance was so vigorous—Kendrick and Julius were just incredible. They literally started shredding the stage [during the Broadway run]. The stage started breaking underneath them so we had to go and try to patch it up with Bondo, this really hard putty that hardens almost as hard as metal.
Thompson: The level of invention was not about making it just to invented. The whole idea of tap dancing around an electric chair was from how they used to put the boys next to the electric chair in order to let them hear the people screaming and dying in the other room. The little boy, Eugene Williams, would have nightmares about this because, of course, why wouldn't you at 13?
Domingo: Audience members get lulled into the performance, the sheer spectacle of it. By the end, you're ready to applaud. And then you have to think, “What the fuck am I applauding, a young Black boy being abused?” It’s layers upon layers. It goes into how people got lulled into the entertainment of Black bodies hanging, of Black bodies burning, running over Black bodies with trucks.
Henry: That opening number was like, “Here we are, coming in full force, 60 miles an hour.” It was very jarring. There were moments when I was questioning like, “Yo, is this the best way? Is this how we want to present this?” It wasn't until later on in rehearsal that I was like, “Oh yes, this is probably one of the most powerful ways that this can be delivered.”
Dixon: It creates a brilliant vehicle of subversion to layer in all of these things, to make it a really harrowing experience because it is fun. It is entertaining. We're great storytellers.
Domingo: It was like a Trojan horse. But if you know Kander and Ebb, you should know they've done things like Cabaret and explored Nazi Germany or Kiss of the Spiderwoman. You’re coming for an entertainment that's going to knock your socks off, but you're also going to be challenged by a piece of theatre that's going to make you think. The whole intention was, “We're not going to let you off the hook at all.” If anything, I loved the fact that we were indicting audiences.
The Scottsboro Boys opened at the Vineyard Theatre February 12, 2010. With extensions, it continued to run until April 18, 2010. The Off-Broadway production earned a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics, an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical, and Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Choreographer.
Domingo: Our first audiences were just like shattered. I remember not even hearing applause at the end because it was so raw and so visceral. Suddenly it not only turned into applause, but it was tears and standing and appreciation. I knew we hit on something so special and necessary.
McClendon: That was a dream-come-true standing ovation that I will never forget.
Washington: When the curtain went down, the reception was extraordinary. It was absolutely electric. We were almost vibrating because we were so close.
Garvey-Blackwell: It was always just such an electric feeling in that house during those first previews.
White: We were spitting on people because the audience members were right there. You could feel the electricity from us within the audience. It was so in your face. It’s an intimate show with so many beautiful details.
Domingo: The audience couldn't leave quickly. They stood in the lobby of the Vineyard and didn't want to go home. They needed to cry. They needed to talk about it. It was a thing that they had to talk to a stranger about it right after. “What did we see? I felt uncomfortable. Oh my God, it made me feel angry.”
Garvey-Blackwell: At the Vineyard, we were engaging people in dialogue and inviting people from various communities to see the show and have conversation about it. We had talkbacks. We had student matinees. Our whole thing was like, “You can't be afraid to talk about it.” The whole point of doing it is to have the dialogue and the conversation about it.
Lane: The Scottsboro Boys was about having a conversation after the show. You go back to your hamlets, to wherever you've come from, and you have a conversation about America. You have a conversation of what that moment in time means to you—that's theatre.
Washington: The talkbacks were always very animated and passionate, but we made it our business as a cast to always go out for the talkbacks.
Hicks: We all knew that history backwards and forwards. You couldn't tell us, “Oh, they're just actors just making a paycheck.” Oh, no. We knew the show we were getting into.
Washington: We made it a pact to go out together. We assigned each other and passed around articles.
White: I had the nickname, “The Archivist,” because I went to the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture], and found handwritten letters. We were all helping each other. We were all fired up to make this so good and as authentic as possible.
Washington: We wanted to be as educated as we could and we wanted to be ambassadors, not only for the show, but also for the boys’ story. To make sure if you go and tell it, tell it right.
Domingo: That's something a lot of people aren't prepared to do when they come to the theatre. We're going to make you feel all those uncomfortable feels—that's actually the intent. We knew we only did our job when people would walk out, when people would just sit in their seat looking side-to-side being like, “What you laughing at?”
Arinde: They had a scene where they have a little 12 year-old boy being executed and at one point they’re buzzing him and making a joke of it, like electrocuting him and the corpses got up on the side of him, tap-dancing, and I said to the person next to me, “That’s funny to you?”
Domingo: At one point at the end of my song, which is called “Financial Advice,” I put my finger over my nose and do like a hook nose gesture, which is completely doubling down on racial propaganda against Jews. This woman in the front row said, “That's not funny. And I looked right at her, in character, and I said, “You're right. It's not.” And did my turn, high-kicked, and left the stage. That was the point. The point is for you to know in your soul that that shit's not funny. It wasn't to celebrate it. This woman could not help herself. She was loud. It wasn’t quiet and to herself. She was in full theatre voice.
Arinde: The scene about Jewish guy from New York, that’s when it went quiet [in the theatre]. I asked the people next to me, “Oh, now you're not laughing? It’s all funny except for that? Let’s talk about that. You’re from New York, so now you're quiet because it hits home to you.” [In an interview with book writer Thompson,] I asked, “Would you do a musical about the Holocaust? Would you have a scene in the gas chambers where people got up and danced?”
Thomas III: It was a really tough show to let go of at the end of the night. Our Eugene [Cody Wise during the Off-Broadway run], said to me, “You have become so mean.” It slapped me back into reality. I really had to examine it because I was carrying all that stuff around with me every day, and I was not letting it go. I was crying on stage and then going home and watching the news with another young Black man getting killed because someone thought that he was a threat or made up the idea that he was a threat. It was sort of cyclical.
Dixon: It was such a great troupe of actors, such a great ensemble piece. The group was locked in together. You can't escape the power of what that creates. Theatre is a spell, and sometimes it is a very powerful, special spell. We recognized the powerful magic in that moment was rare and it doesn't always happen.
Garvey-Blackwell: As I watched the collaboration, I think from a producer's standpoint, I've never felt as invigorated and as terrified at the same time.
Kander: If you're involved with a theatre like the Vineyard, which is sort of a home for us, you get wonderful feedback. They supported us in such a way so that we could try out moments there, and change every night. That’s how you begin to fine-tune what you've written or find out how terrible it is.
White: [At the Vineyard], we kept getting extended so many times and we were dying to sneak into that [Broadway] season right before Tony cutoffs, but there was just no theatre open. [So with the cast album,] we were so happy that this moment in time was being documented in some way. I think that they wanted to make sure that we got that original cast together before we were separated, because we were going to move forward without Brandon since he had another project.
Dixon: [Cast album recording days] are kind of madcap fun days, but it was a blast. The mics and the headphones, you can really hear all the parts and the things just lock in everything, especially in “Southern Days.” “Go Back Home” was really lovely as well.
Thomas III: That was my first cast album, so I was on cloud nine. All of these years I had been listening to cast albums, and here I am playing Roy Wright on the original cast album of The Scottsboro Boys alongside Tony-nominated Brandon Victor Dixon and theatre legend John Cullum.
John Cullum (The Interlocutor, Off-Broadway and Broadway): I had a lovely song [on the Off-Broadway cast album], “It's Gonna Take Time” that I sang to the leading actor. My character thinks he’s being very generous, but he doesn’t realize that while he thinks he’s being generous and kind to a Black man, he’s actually not really understanding the problem at all. It's been over 200 years, and it still hasn’t been resolved.
PART III: “WE’S ALL IN? WE’S ALL IN.”
Road To Broadway
After the Off-Broadway run, The Scottsboro Boys traveled to Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and began performances July 31, 2010. After an eight-week run, The Scottsboro Boys headed to Broadway with a new Haywood Patterson—then-newcomer Joshua Henry. The musical opened at the Lyceum Theatre October 31, 2010.
Kander: I was always kind of wary of Broadway audiences [for this show]. This is not what they're looking for to have a good time. The Guthrie was quite different. They have a wonderful built-in audience there who are really interested [in this kind of show].
Weissler: We thought that [Broadway audiences] would be filled with insight and emotion. We didn't think about the financial success of that moment; we were just thinking of the need that Broadway had for this subject matter—successful or not. We had a hard time finding investors, because they didn't believe the subject matter could be successful.
Domingo: We created a piece of art that was arresting and really holding America accountable for its racist practices and examining this horrific history. That is something that was not boding well with popular audiences. You get Joe and Sally Housecoat coming from Idaho and they want to see one show, you think they want to see The Scottsboro Boys? I think they would now, but back then, it wasn't as sexy as going to see The Lion King.
Sosnowski: It was a type of show that could appeal to folks that see plays. It has some major, major depth to the themes that it covers. [Advertising-wise], we weren't focusing our efforts on the tourist audience. We were going for a smaller, much more Manhattan-centric to start.
Domingo: A lot of Americans thought we were living in a post-racial America. Like, "Why do we have to dig that up? Why do we have to go there?"
White: One of my favorite moments during our first weekend on Broadway, three Black women came up to me, and two of them said, “Oh my God, we love the show. What a show! So moving, so important!” The other one said, “I didn't like it.” I was like, “This is so great because to me that's what art it is. Sitting in the same show and having different reactions to it.”
Hicks: James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington. These people came and they saw us. They understood why we were telling the story in this way.
Walker: [Part of my duties was] to escort celebrities backstage. Celebrities were coming left and right. One day, I got a call from the publicist who said, “Denzel Washington is coming, but he's not a definite to come backstage.” The actors never knew who was going to be in the house that night, so during the standing ovation I go to Denzel and his wife Pauletta and say, “Hi, I’m Robin, I'd like to know if you'd like to—" and before I could even finish asking, Denzel Washington said, “Yes! We want to go backstage.” Joshua Henry ran into us as we were walking back and the look on his face was priceless. It was just such a beautiful moment. We all gave so much love.
Thomas III: These people come to the show who have entertained me for the majority of my life, and here is my opportunity to provide some entertainment for them for a couple of hours. I love that it was sort of my thank you.
Hicks: Clarence Norris’ [Hicks’ character] daughter and grandson came to see the show. She gave me the biggest hug.
Gumbs: That night we were really emotional. We felt that same connection, even though we weren't physically, or by blood, family. We said, “Tell us your side of the story. We want to hear your side of the story. Maybe there's some stuff that wasn't put into articles that we didn't learn about that you can tell us.”
Hicks: It was one of the most transcending moments I've ever experienced in my life and career. She said through tears, “My dad would be so proud.”
Walker: At the end of the show, I would stand in the back of the house just to see reactions. To see grown men [in the audience] weeping at the end of a performance changes you.
Cullum: Fifteen minutes before the curtain went up, every performance, the cast would all congregate downstairs and have a meeting.
Henry: Colman would usually say something or I would pray. We’d sing old spirituals or Fred Hammond or R&B songs that of course we all knew. It's just a different, deeper, richer feeling when it's all Black folks. When it's people that speak your language, came up with your culture, understand all your references and understand the weight of this moment.
Domingo: We made sure that we got in a circle every night and held hands. We looked at each other. Some of us gave testimonials to inspire the others because we knew the work that we're doing. We were going into battle. We were going out there on the front lines.
Henry: There were tears in that circle because it was a sacred, holy place of remembrance. We felt their spirits say, “Tell our story, dammit, tell our story!”
Hicks: We did not miss the circle. Not one time did anyone miss that circle, John Cullum included.
Cullum: That was a very important part of the show. I would go down and stand with them, but I thought it should be a private moment for them. They are living with all of the terrors and anxieties that are brought on by racial injustice. I wasn't excluded from it—I even testified a couple of times.
Henry: I enjoyed working with Cullum because I felt his sensitivity to this piece, too. The dude didn’t have to step on another stage or say another line in his life. I really got the impression that he felt like it was an important story to tell and he was happy to be there and telling this story.
Cullum: It was a very strange part to play. It was disturbing for me to do it to a certain extent because I could relate to it too well as a Southerner. My relatives were like this guy, so it brought back a lot of feelings of confusion.
Henry: He was very respectful of the process and our process.
Gumbs: Everybody was always super uplifting, but we would have a moment of silence as well, because we remembered what we came here to do. That’s when it started hitting me that it’s a dark story. It was such adult content for a 12 year-old, but the cast helped balance it out. Even though they couldn't really shield it from me, it was like a big brother type thing.
Henry: Jeremy [Gumbs] would always hold my hand, because he was like my little brother. He’d look at me like, “I know that you’re going to lead the telling of the story, we're going to do this.” In that moment I'd be like, “I think I got it today, Jeremy. Let’s go do this.” There's just nothing like holding hands with your Black brothers, playing a show on Broadway—a place that was that wasn't necessarily built for us. It was like “No matter how many times you've been the only Black person in a White show, you have your place here.” It felt like home.
Stroman: We would remember the original Scottsboro boys and dedicate the show to them. We'd all put our arms in the middle of that circle, and say a famous line from the show: "We’s all in?" And we would reply, "We's all in. For life." And out they would go and do an incredible show.
Washington: There were times onstage where we were all breathing together because it was such a still moment—all 12 of us. We were actually that much in sync. That’s an extraordinary feeling as an artist.
Hicks: We did do that a lot on stage. There was something kinesthetic about it. We became this one cohesive unit and we were just there for each other. It was so unconditional. I was the fight captain for the show. We had not one incident on that show. Those fight scenes were intense, but not one incident.
Lane: Being a Scottboro boy was life-changing because you're never in the same show as nine or 10 other Black men. That's rare. There's a fear there because you're used to being the only one, so you feel like you're going to be less than, but you are multiplied. It’s like being in the arms of your brothers.
Hicks: We lifted each other up every single day. The show helped me on my own personal journey because I was around all of these amazing Black men and women who just loved one each other. We just loved up on each other. There was no animosity. There was no jealousy.
Domingo: We were a company that really believed in touching and agreeing. We never left the space without embracing another young man and our White counterparts or the women. We made sure that we embraced someone before we left because we knew that was part of the work as well, that we have to trust each other.
Lane: Before you leave the building, to as many people as you can, you say “Bye. Have a good night. Take good care of yourself. Make sure you get good sleep. You did a great job tonight.” All of those things that don't always happen on Broadway. It was a profound experience.
Thomas III: It was a labor of love.
Getting The Word Out
Advertising agency SpotCo and public relations agency Boneau/Bryan-Brown were brought on to get the word about The Scottsboro Boys. But how do you market a minstrel show in 2010?
Breckenridge: People were shocked by the minstrel show themes, the blackface, and the creative team. No matter how much our marketing team worked, it was a hard sell. We did a commercial that was really awesome and that helped us a little bit, but the word just didn't get out.
White: Our commercial was so amazing. One of the best commercials for Broadway ever. But how do you market a show like that? We didn’t have posters up all over the city, we were in a theatre east of Times Square. It kind of felt like we were set up to fail.
Sosnowski: To start the ad campaign, we really pushed that this was the final musical from Kander and Ebb. “If you want to experience the final show from these two masters, this is that production. This is that show.” The early radio commercials that we launched utilized those famous vamps from Chicago and Cabaret.
Chris Boneau (press representative): At the beginning, it was built on the pedigree of the names who made it. The number of people who knew the Scottsboro boys’ story was shockingly smaller than I thought. We sat in my office and said, “How are we going to crack this one? How do you describe it in an elevator speech?” You really can't run away from the true story you're presenting. It wasn't lost on me that it was a story that people just felt uncomfortable to see.
Boritt: [For my scenic design], the visual research was disturbing. I looked at a lot of 19th century images of minstrelsy, and they're all happy Americana. These joyful images of completely racist behavior.
Sosnowski: We went through 20-30 comps in terms of different ways we could have gone with the artwork. There were versions that were illustrations. There were versions that felt like Busby Berkeley numbers, and versions that looked like book covers with silhouettes. We landed on this beautiful black and white photography to showcase the different characters on this journey, close-up, in gritty detail.
Boritt: I looked at [visual artist] Kara Walker's work, particularly for “Make Friends With The Truth.” At first glance, it looks like this kind of 19th century silhouette, then as you look a little closer you see something really disturbing, usually somebody getting raped or killed or something, something really horrible. It elicits that same series of emotions where you see something beautiful and horrible at the same time.
Boneau: There were a lot of think pieces and opinion pieces that asked, “Is this musical meant to be a Broadway show?”
Arinde: The concept that you would make a musical in blackface over something so serious and tragic was so reprehensible to me. If you want to do it, do it as a sensitive drama piece, but I'm tired of seeing Black folks beaten by cops or slave owners or any of that. I’m tired of seeing our pain on display. I know what our angst is.
Boneau: The Black TV shows and magazines said, “I don't want to bring this up to my reader.”
On November 6, 2010, protesters from the Freedom Party and the December 12th Movement arrived at the Lyceum Theatre for a physical demonstration to “condemn Scottsboro Boys for trivializing the Black Holocaust.”
England: No one person has the right to define how some something is received. You approach this divisive material, and it’s influenced by whatever experience you bring to it.
Arinde: I think the blackface was my problem. I don't like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, to be honest. I grew up watching The Black and White Minstrel Show in England, with the boot polish, and I didn’t understand it. If it were a Black team maybe they would have been more sensitive to doing it. I think part of it for me was that it was a white team who did it.
Domingo: Our Broadway production was the first time we had any protesters whatsoever. We had full runs with extended performances at the Vineyard theater and the same with the Guthrie in Minneapolis; zero— zero protesters. The production of The Scottsboro Boys eventually did the thing that happened to the Scottsboro boys themselves. It became a media circus. People saw ads on the side of the theatre. They thought they knew what it was. All they heard was blackface, Black boys, and a white creative team. They heard nothing else. They didn't see it.
Arinde: Ms. Polk, one of the demonstrators, was 84 years old. She said, “I was five or six [years old] living in Harlem in 1933, and we went to a demonstration for [the Scottsboro boys]. When I heard they were going to do the musical, I had to come to tell them, ‘You can't do this, you shouldn't do this. It’s disrespectful.’”
White: It was easy to go, “How dare these white people do a show about our oppression in blackface?” Thinking that they’re making us be coons again, but no, it's not that black and white. You need to sit and see that show. On paper, I'm sure it looked like that. People couldn't get past that.
Arinde: [While covering the demonstrations], my editor said, “You should go see it, you can't write about it if you haven't seen it.” I disagreed. I said, “Absolutely I can, because the notion of it is an insult to me.” I went anyway. I said, “Let me go in with an open mind.” I hated it. I thought it was full of stereotypes.
Washington: I would speak for all of us in that company—I don't think anyone, I know nobody on that stage would have done anything that we thought was an embarrassment or was something that we didn't think through or something that we did not do intentionally.
Domingo: I went out front and I said, “Would you like for us to get you some tickets so you can come see it? Then we can actually engage in a dialogue.” I got blank stares, dumbfounded. They didn't know what to say. It was clear to me. I said, “Oh, you're actually not interested in a dialogue, which is actually what this is about.” They went away after I think two or three performances.
Thomas III: Here we were telling the story that we were very proud of, and they wouldn't even sit down to understand what it was that they were protesting. On top of that, they basically called us “Uncle Toms.” It was a very hurtful moment.
Lane: For them to be of your own color, too, that's just a mind-fuck. You don't know where to put that. You feel like you're doing something bad because they're the same color as you, but you know that you aren't. But the creative team is white and that’s floating around too, but we had a lot of input.
White: I respect their feelings. I get that. I get that it’s easy for me to say, “Well, it’s a show,” but you're entitled to feel that way based on your history.
Henry: I couldn't be mad at [the protesters]. Brandon and I, we all had that mouse-trap reaction to it, but I knew the power of what this story had, so I had to block it out. I needed to be in a right space to tell the story.
Thomas III: I was really heartbroken by the protests. It galvanized my need to tell the story, because here I was this 20-something year-old man who had never heard this story before, had never been taught about this in school. They had literally been erased from history. This important thing, I had not heard it from school. I have not heard it from my elders in my community. I had never heard it from these people who were standing outside protesting.
Lane: I remember being scared a few times onstage because you could hear them a little bit out front.
Roane: My very first performance since graduating college was on Broadway during the protest. As we're coming up the stairs to the lobby, I just hear screaming. I looked out the window and see people screaming at us being like, “You’re traitors to your race! How dare you!” I'm like, “I'm just trying to go make my Broadway debut.” The music starts and I have to go down this aisle and just start the show. Was it a perfect show? Absolutely not. Did I live through it? Yes. At one point I was not where I was supposed to be, so Joshua Henry picked me up and literally threw me across the stage. I was in the air, I literally flew! I forgot a prop at one point and John Cullum was looking at me like, “What is this boy doing?” I lived through it.
Thomas III: [The protesters] tried to make it seem like it was about money. They tried to make it seem like it was about advancing our careers and things of that nature. I walked away from the show broke.
Domingo: No one was doing it for a paycheck. You're not doing it because, “Oh, this is going to make me a star.” This is what you believed you could do and the power of what you can actually do as an artist.
Thomas III: I'm going to always respect my elders. I'm going to always give them reverence, and hear them when they want to talk about a situation, but I also know that I need to navigate this world in the way that I see fit. It’s important to me that our stories, these stories about my history, not be lost. If someone is willing to help me get educated on the subject and also put a story of someone like me on stage that is heartfelt and is handled well, I’m in.
Washington: There are a lot of ways to tell a story. I feel like The Scottsboro Boys touches you through your soul. I know for myself, when something is fact-based, I can't take it in because it's so harsh and it's true. It's human nature. You protect yourself. The brilliance of The Scottsboro Boys is that you’re humming and it's beautifully orchestrated, it's fun. It seeps into you in a different way. It snuck up on them.
Hicks: It’s hard to be Black in America because it's damned if you do, damned if you don't. And with that show, it was damned if you do. And we did that.
On November 30, 2010—one month into their Broadway run—The Scottsboro Boys posted its closing notice. Its total grosses were $2.7 million.
White: I literally just fell to the ground. I did the dramatic slide down the wall. It was gut-wrenching.
Breckenridge: It was so traumatic. I think I blocked it out.
Domingo: I was devastated. Completely devastated. It was like a gut-punch.
Washington: I absolutely burst into tears. I felt like we could have found our audience, but it's not a holiday show.
Gumbs: It was sad because we didn't get to tell it as long as we wanted to, and it didn't get to reach as many people as we wanted it to. We knew that the people that it did touch and reach, they were going to be affected for the rest of their lives.
Hicks: I've never seen Susan Stroman angry or upset, but that day she was holding it back, she was standing strong. Her eyes were all red because you could feel how much she cared about us.
Henry: I was very disappointed because I knew how audiences were being affected. And that we wouldn't have this environment that was a healing sanctuary.
White: I wanted to continue fighting for this show and giving voice and life to people who were erased from history.
Breckenridge: It was so much pride, so much honor, so much responsibility to tell the story. As we said, "If you're going to tell it, tell it right," or else we're not doing the show justice.
Gumbs: We just knew that we were telling our truths. We didn't want their legacies to be forgotten.
Lane: Going out there each and every night to bring Ozie Powell to life felt like a privilege, a duty in my soul—in my DNA—to use my superpowers as an artist to kind of resurrect this person in some way, shape or form, and kind of have them live again.
Domingo: We were way ahead of the conversation; we put our art and our livelihoods on the line for it.
Cornelious: I wholeheartedly think we were ahead of the conversation. I think we all wanted to be happy that we finally had a Black president. People were like “Why are you putting the story out there?” Well, we weren’t telling the story. We were progressing, but we weren’t changing.
Breckenridge: We had the desire to do right by these boys. It was the only thing that we could do, we can't take back their experience.
Lane: What was emotional was that here were these men bought and sold up the river, with the juxtaposition of “Here I am on a Broadway stage living my dreams. Their dreams were crushed at 13 or 17 years old.” All of their lives were ruined. It happened again 50 years later with the Central Park Five.
Walker: Maybe it's because I'm a Black woman, maybe it's because I know the history of this country and what Black men are still suffering through at the voices of white women, like the Amy Coopers. It was one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done. I was honored to be a part of it.
After 29 previews and 49 regular performances, The Scottsboro Boys played its final performance on December 12, 2010. You can read Playbill’s account here.
Thompson: When Kander watches a show, he always sits in a middle row of the house. [On the final night], he went down the aisle and the audience went completely quiet, then leapt to their feet and they applauded him. It was like, “Oh my gosh, the fact that we're still working with Kander is an indication of something else, an other-worldliness.”
Kander: I've written a lot of musicals and I've had a good time on most of them, but nothing like this, this was like some special light was going on.
Garvey-Blackwell: I don't want to be all new age, but there was an energy in that room that felt like we were summoning these spirits. There was an energy.
Henry: The pre-show was very emotional for me. There's nothing like that circle. After, I was pretty busted up, too. I was living in Harlem at the time and going home after I thought to myself, “I'm glad I live in Harlem right now because I just want to be around Black people.”
Domingo: Maybe it’s an ethos we have as African-Americans in our systems, but we know that we have to be better than the best. That last night, we left it on the floor, because we knew that if this was our last time, we had to make sure we changed minds and opened hearts.
Gumbs: We couldn't even get through our last lines. When we're wiping off the blackface makeup, we explain how each one of them lost their lives. With my character, nobody knows what even happened when he passed away. And frankly, at that time, did anyone care?
Thomas III: On the final night, I made a documentary video, and asked everyone, “Do you think that the boys are proud of us?” Unequivocally the answer, without hesitation, was “Yes, absolutely. What we have done here is bring these boys back to life and tell their story and not let them be lost.”
Gumbs: When we all got off stage, we had a huge group hug. We were so choked up.
Cullum: In this show, the Scottsboro boys get released finally—not just a physical release, but a spiritual, an emotional release.
Stroman: The cast brought the Scottsboro boys back to life.
Hicks: The only way to say it is, “Hey, Hey, Hey, say goodbye to the Scottsboro boys.” We were all wrecks knowing that we were taking our last and final bow in a show that was so dark that actually ironically gave us so much hope.
On May 3, 2011, The Scottsboro Boys earned 12 Tony Award nominations, the second highest nomination tally of the season to The Book of Mormon’s 14 nods. It also set a record for the most nominations for an already closed musical. On Tony night, it didn’t win in any of its nominated categories.
White: [Since we were closed], we didn't have a theatre to get ready, so we were downstairs at the Beacon in the dressing room for part of it. We got a nice hotel room close to the theatre and we had food and snacks. We Skyped Josh Breckenridge, who was doing a new musical out of town in San Francisco.
Breckenridge: I was such a mixed bag of emotions [at our watch party in San Francisco]. But E. Clayton played Olen beautifully. I'm so glad that he got to do it.
Cornelious: It was exhilarating. I was grateful to be a part of the show and to be one of the boys finally, and I had to get it right since I only had one shot. For rehearsals, it was just nice to be back in the room with everybody.
Henry: It was instantly like falling back in with family. But we were like, “Oh, we going to do this choreography right now? Double turn, hitch-kick? Whew, alright.”
Lane: We felt like children on the red carpet. We barely walked it.
Roane: They didn't want us on the red carpet at all. We didn’t have credentials and no one thought we should have them. Rodney saw Whoopi Goldberg and she was like, “Oh, it's the boys! Let those boys over here!” So we all walked on the carpet with her and took pictures.
Henry: The protesters were definitely at the Tony Awards when I stepped out of the car.
Gumbs: A Broadway security guard said, “I heard that there was a lot of stuff going on at your guys’ theatre, so I'm just going to stop by [the red carpet] and stand guard for a little bit when I'm off work.” Sure enough, that’s what he did.
Roane: For the performance, they wanted to include every cast member available. I didn’t perform, but I carried that big old plank out. I looked out at that audience for a few seconds too long. I heard a voice in my head saying, “This is not about you,” and I pulled myself offstage.
Cornelious: I remember at the end of it, holding that pose and hearing all the applause like, “Wow, we truly, we truly did something here.” Even if the show didn't last very long, we put our stamp on this and theaters across the country.
Henry: It felt free. I’m literally singing “I am free,” three times. We got that roar of thundering applause. But it feels so clinical because when that curtain came down, it was like, “Alright, everybody pack up, take your planks.” We never know if we’re going to feel that way again. That’s the hardest part.
PART IV: “WHAT WAS A WHISPER IS NOW A ROAR”
After the Broadway production, The Scottsboro Boys had its first post-Broadway engagement at Philadelphia Theatre Company in 2012, with Rodney Hicks (the original Clarence Norris) stepping into the role of Haywood Patterson. The production won four Barrymore Awards including Outstanding Overall Production of a Musical. The Los Angeles premiere opened at the Ahmanson Theatre May 29, 2010. The U.K. premiere opened at the Young Vic Theatre almost three years to the day after Broadway’s opening, October 29, 2013, with Kyle Scatliffe as Haywood Patterson. This production earned six Olivier nominations. The production then transferred to the West End’s Garrick Theatre with Brandon Victor Dixon returning to the role of Patterson and earning a 2015 Olivier nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.
Hicks: They took the blackface out for the Philadelphia company because of the [Broadway] protests. They were just scared, and we did feel it was missing.
Breckenridge: I almost yelled at the stage when I saw the Philly production. They mimed the blackface. They did not put it on. They just had wipes and mimed taking it off. I was like, “What are we doing if we can't do this?”
Lane: The Scottsboro Boys in America was one of restrained opportunity. You felt the opportunity of moving the ball forward, but it wasn't received well. In London, they opened their arms to us. There was education. We were on billboards all over the place. They really showed up in London and we just felt like, “This is what it was supposed to be.”
White: I was told that [London audiences] never give standing ovations, especially for musicals. Every night they were on their feet.
Domingo: We sold out, sold out, and sold out some more. I guess maybe there was distance from the material for audiences that they were able to examine exactly what it was. It wasn't so visceral.
Lane: It’s not their history. So they could lean in a little more and pay attention a little more and take the ride and want to talk about it a little more without being so angry.
Dixon: [For the West End run], I went over there first because James, Forrest, and Colman did the initial London run [at the Young Vic]. It was just me [during the first part of rehearsals], and I was like “These kids seem to have no familiarity with what we’re dealing with—can we get some pictures of the boys? And lynchings? Like I want people hanging from trees.” I went on Amazon and got Haywood's book for everybody.
Stroman: While we were in London, the Alabama governor posthumously pardoned the Scottsboro boys. We changed the set so as the actors took a bow there was a projection explaining the news.
Domingo: [The night it happened], we were on stage and there was a flood of tears. I thought, “Here we are, we've been on this mission as performers, as activists, to move the dial. We actually made change.”
Dixon: Who cares about posthumous exonerations for people who were tortured half of their lives? But if it says something about what the creation of this show has done and putting the boys into the consciousness of people again, then that is something positive.
Stroman: No one was talking about these guys. We had a great collaboration with The Scottsboro Boys Museum in Alabama. One of our producers, Catherine Schreiber, was actually at the event and handed the governor the pen.
Domingo: It’s one of those moments where you think, “Oh, art works. Art truly can be the parachute that saves us all.”
In 2019, Kenosha Unified School District’s theatre group staged a production of The Scottsboro Boys at Bradford High School. After starting a student group to hear about the needs of the students, Holly Stanfield, KUSD’s theatre teacher and director (and Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame member), found that there was a need for more representation in the shows that they were producing.
Holly Stanfield (theatre teacher/director, Kenosha Unified School District): I saw the original Broadway production, and I walked out trembling. As a person who wants to be a white ally, it just took my breath away. I talked to John [Prignano of Musical Theatre International], saying, “Wouldn't that be amazing for Kenosha to do?” We had the young men that could do it. Once they said yes, I thought, “I shouldn't be directing this.”
Christopher Chase Carter (director of KUSD’s production): Holly reached out to me through a friend of mine because she wanted a director of color.
Nick Daly (Ozie Powell/Ruby Bates, KUSD): Having Chris in the room, having a Black man leading the space was important for me. Chris is the first director that I had who looked like me.
Carter: I read the script and I said, “These boys can’t touch the script until they're fully aware of what they're getting themselves into.”
Stanfield: We had a meeting with all of the kids and their parents and the administration. We watched a documentary the film together. We had parents sign permission slips. We had a lot of discussion. As a white person, I can only be an ally, so I listened and introduced things for them to possibly think about as young people.
Daly: There was so many moments of freedom in the rehearsal room, it was such a collaborative space for us as artists.
Carter: My approach with the blackface was the first time we did it in rehearsals, I said, “Stop. Sit. Talk. How do you feel? We need to agree together that this is what we want to do. If this makes you uncomfortable, we are not doing it.” We had an in-depth, emotional conversation.
Daly: It's something about knowing that I, as a Black artist, am standing on the shoulders of so many other Black artists before me. They had to degrade themselves in order for me to be able to be where I am today. It’s powerful only because it reminds me of the resilience of the lineage that I come from.
Carter: Every performance I said, “If one of you is not comfortable, none of you put it on. This is a team effort. This is a family.” Every night they ended up doing it because they felt it was important to tell the story. Interestingly enough, in the context of the show, they’re technically in blackface the entire time. It's not until the end of the show when you realize that.
Daly: [With the minstrel show format], it’s satire in that sense. If you're an audience member watching you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is funny.” We trick the audience. I have to credit the original Broadway cast for their collaboration on the piece. There’s no way that the story would be as resonant as it is if it wasn't for the magic that the original actors created in the room.
Carter: My version was much more impactful because I was dealing with the actual age of how old these boys were when they were taken from their home and locked up. Some people said, “Don't you think they're too young?” and I always answered, “Were they too young to get locked up in real life?”
Stanfield: The importance of doing this show in high school is that it begins the conversation that needs to happen. Theatre is a safe space when it is done well. When you create that safe space for everybody to come together and talk, it gives your students a voice.
Daly: Holly thought it was so important to have a talkback at the end of each performance. The musical was well received, but we went in very afraid. Because, the world sees it now, but Kenosha is not any different than any other place in the country. It’s rooted in systemic racism.
Stanfield: Nick Daly’s grandmother came to do a talkback, as she had been a part of a lot of the original marches. We invited the Coalition for Dismantling Racism from Kenosha to also participate.
Daly: We did the research. We were able to answer those questions.
The group was invited to perform at Educational Theatre Association’s 2019 International Thespian Festival, a celebration of student achievement in the arts, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Carter: We had to put up a brand new show, new blocking, new spacing, new entrances, in eight hours. As the leader I was trying not to panic, but the payoff was that we had a line wrapped around the entire block to get into this show.
Stanfield: Stroman actually came and watched the end of rehearsals, then we gathered to ask questions about the invention of the musical and her part of it.
Stroman: They did an incredible job. It was a wonderful experience to see actors who were the real ages.
Daly: Beyond Susan Stroman being there, the response that we got from the other thespians was really powerful. I hope that they all take whatever they got from our production with them, not only into the industry, but into the world.
Stanfield: It was interesting to stand in the back of the house and watch everybody leave after the production. There were tears. One student said, “I need my own space for a while.” It was a powerful thing.
Carter: I've gained nine young siblings from this experience. They are no longer students to me. They are family. We will forever be connected in this experience.
Stanfield: Theatre bonds us naturally, but it’s different when you put yourself through an experience like that. You don't emerge the same way. You have to really start from your community. You have to make it safe for everybody.
Carter: I can't wait to tell the story again. You can never do it enough. The only way we're going to change is if we keep putting it out there.
10 years later, how much has changed since The Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway?
Breckenridge: I really think it's time for a revival for this show. Once it's heard again, people will be ready to listen. If you look historically at Kander and Ebb’s musicals, they're short-lived when they first come out.
Thomas III: The country is primed for it. We now seek out stories of injustice. We’re looking for our blindspots. We have the appetite for justice.
Henry: People are more aware than they've ever been because we don't feel safe.
Roane: I’d like to think that this country has learned something, but clearly we haven't.
Lane: It's still happening. They're still running into houses and killing people like Breonna Taylor. Eight and a half minutes on George Floyd’s neck, they’re just still fucking doing it. Fundamentally, there has to be a change of the individual's heart. We can help with the laws, but you have to change your mind.
Gumbs: Even though the story happened in 1931, it can still happen today. When I turned 18, I went into a designer store with my brother for my birthday. This guy came up to us and said, “Are you guys looking for something?” I said, “I'm looking for like a wallet or a backpack,” and he said, “Maybe one day, if you work really hard, you can come back and get one of those things.”
Breckenridge: I go on autopilot. I feel like a lot of us as Black men do. When I'm around White women, especially at a certain age, like if I get into an elevator, I automatically go to the other side to make her feel comfortable. It's not even a thought, it's not a consideration. It's automatic.
Thomas III: The song “Alabama Ladies” is me walking down the street in New York and having people cross the street or clutch their bag in fear.
Lane: [My character] Ozie was shot in the head, because he just couldn't take it anymore. He spoke few words for the rest of his life. It’s not that he couldn't speak, it’s that the will to speak left. That informs my life today. It’s like, “I think I'm tired? Figure it out. You’re just little inconvenienced.”
Henry: “Are we gonna tell the truth?” is one of the most powerful lines to witness a Black performer say to [the Interlocutor], the person who was in control of the thing. It’s like, “Because you know how valuable I am. You can’t do this without my brilliance and my excellence.” It’s a game, and it’s a game in entertainment. I think it’s the moment we’re at now where we're like, “Wait, do we need permission? Do we need the producers? Do we need the artistic directors? Can we build something for our own?”
White: We were so unique, strong, and unapologetic about our storytelling. They allowed us to be the center of a story, show a wide range of talent, and that be enough. I think it's opened up the capabilities of what Black artists can do on stage. When do you ever get to hear Black men on stage just singing contemporary musical theater in tight harmony, and it’s not about Motown?
Henry: It chipped away at the iceberg of the Great White Way. I know not everyone would agree because of the creative team, but I saw this show as unapologetically Black. It gave me permission to take up space, to think, “Be who you are—fully—in rehearsal and in performance. That’s your gift. That’s your service.”
White: Dick Scanlan told me that The Scottsboro Boys inspired him to write A Whorl Inside a Loop.
Thomas III: I think that it challenged Broadway in a way that Broadway wasn't interested in being challenged at the time. We crave and clamor after comfort. It's easy to be comfortable. That’s why a lot of people are just now waking up to the idea that other people are being mistreated in society.
Thompson: The fact that it had a short life on Broadway never diminished the experience. We were very lucky and it's a show that continues to have life and continues to impact people.
Breckenridge: We're in The Scottsboro Boys Museum. There’s a whole section dedicated to the Broadway show.
Boritt: The Smithsonian National Museum of American History asked if we had any artifacts from The Scottsboro Boys because they wanted to make it part of the permanent collection down there. So I sent down a chair and the original set model from the Vineyard run. I posted about it on Facebook, and Brandon Victor Dixon commented on it, “If they remember you,” which is one of the last lines in the show. So, the fact that these pieces are going to the Smithsonian means it will be remembered like culturally.
Dixon: It's probably easily my favorite [show I’ve done]. I love an ensemble piece and nature of the collective storytelling. I love the structure of the show, its sophistication, its honest sincerity. I love the vehicle because it creates space for the artists to execute the work. I love the importance of the story. I appreciate connecting to those spirits and using the tragedy of what they went through for something potentially positive going forward.
Lane: The Scottsboro Boys used all of me as an artist, singer, dancer, actor, and emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally. At the end of the night I was done, and then I was ready again for the next day to fight that good fight artistically. Everything I had to offer was of service.
Hicks: It freed me. It was one of the most difficult shows to ever do in my career, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Roane: It taught me that if a piece is not going to serve me as an artist and the world, I'm not really interested. I don’t want to waste my time, because so much of the boys’ time was wasted.
Gumbs: I still get messages now on Instagram that say, “You inspired us to do this production.”
Washington: Every now and then somebody will say, “Oh my God, I saw you in The Scottsboro Boys. I came three times. It's one of my favorite things of all time.”
White: Every show that I do, someone stops me at the stage door and tells me how much they loved The Scottsboro Boys.
Breckenridge: People think of me as a celebrity, almost. It'll come up that I was in that cast and people will say, “That show changed my life.”
Boritt: I’ve done 450 shows in my life, but this would be one of my top five shows. The creative team was all white, except for Toni-Leslie James, the costume designer. I think now, that would not happen, but I’m very glad to have done it.
Domingo: Any one of those brothers and sisters can always call me at any moment and I will take their call. I will be there when they need me. We truly did become family, and “family” extends to Susan Stroman, Tommy Thompson, John Kander, the stage managers, you name it, we're truly a family. Because we really took a leap of faith with each other.
Washington: It was filled with the joy of true collaboration.
Hicks: We did that show with love and with dignity and with grace. I'm proud of every last person in that show. They will always be my brothers and sisters. White and Black. It doesn't matter. It's like we are family through and through.
Breckenridge: It was the most beautiful experience of my life and a family that will never be broken. It’s lifelong.
Domingo: There has been a film [adaptation] in the works, and they've entrusted me to be the lead producer. I would love for buyers to step up. We were pitching it right before the pandemic, and now it’s time for us come back. Like we say in the play, “What once was a whisper is now a roar,” and I look forward to roaring back.
With its protests, 12 Tony nominations, and posthumous exonerations, The Scottsboro Boys did indeed take the whisper of this story and made it a roar. That was the goal from the beginning—to remember the original “Scottsboro Boys”—and the artists who answered the call had a life-changing experience in the process.
“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine.”
Olen Montgomery. Clarence Norris. Haywood Patterson. Ozie Powell. Willie Roberson. Charles Weems. Eugene Williams. Andy Wright. Roy Wright.
Remember their names.
If you’re interested in learning more, read The Scottsboro Boys Study Guide or visit The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center's website. Visit The Scottsboro Boys' Playbill Vault page to see all of the artists involved with the musical.
Special thanks to all of the interviewees, Stevie Coleman, Logan Culwell-Block, Sheree G. Fitzpatrick, Kerri Kearse, Hampton Palmore, and Imani Punch.