The Scottsboro Boys. February 2017

Porchlight Music Theatre’s  Stellar Scottsboro Boys- Larissa Strong

The story of The Scottsboro Boys is the infamous trial of nine black men who were falsely accused of rape and attempted assault on a train in Alabama, and were then jetted into the treacherous world of Southern justice in 1930’s. In a time and place where lynchings were legal and the desecration of black bodies was a common event, being imprisoned and eventually put to death for a crime they didn’t commit was a reality that the nine men were very aware of.

Their tale is told through the genre of the minstrel show, a type of show that was more common in the mid-late 1800’s and featured white and black performers sporting blackface and portraying caricatures of plantation slaves. While being seen by white crowds as form of entertaining subjugation of black performers, minstrel shows often held a different meaning for the entertainers performing them. One act that comes to mind is Laughing Ben, who was an entertainer that one could find at fairs, expositions, and festivals to stand and laugh for half an hour. White fair attendees would happily pay for him to do this- only to realize after a few minutes of laughter and sustained eye contact who he was really laughing at. It was in this way that black performers of the day could say exactly what they please to slave owners without saying a single word. Porchlight’s The Scottsboro Boys lays the elements of minstrel shows across the stage in a powerful display of defiance, and the cast’s performance of the show is as nuanced as it is haunting.

One element included in the show that I would like to highlight is the cakewalk; a cartoonish dance that is characterized by its high knees that the Interlocutor, the Southern white emcee character called who controls the show, insists that the black characters do with him on multiple instances throughout the course of the show. Each time he tells them to cakewalk he leads the way, kicking his legs and leaning back, his face turned up and grinning while the other characters follow behind him. The origin of the cakewalk was by slaves, who began the dance to mock the way their masters danced. The slave owners saw them dancing this way and began to do it themselves, thinking that they were making fun of their slaves. It became a staple of Southern parties and the slave owners remained unaware that they were the butt of the joke. It’s in this way that the cast exhibits the hidden power behind the minstrel show, which makes the ending of the show so such an amazing and powerful use of theater and of the platform they’ve been given and utilize so well. Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of The Scottsboro Boysis a stunning show that begs a dialogue from its audiences and is an utter shame to miss.

Spike Manton