February 17, 2012 by Ali Swider
“I’m going to sit here and rest my feet.”
“The Scottsboro Boys” ended with these words spoken by the renowned Rosa Parks, played by Kaci M. Fannin. The stage went black, and my reaction slipped out: “Wow.”
Susan Stroman, of “The Producers” fame, directed and choreographed the production complemented by the musical mastery of dynamic duo John Kander and Fred Ebb (creators of renowned works like “Chicago” and “Cabaret”). Based on the book by David Thompson, this musical is a contemporary adaptation of the infamous Scottsboro case of the 1930s.
The time is the Great Depression; the place is Scottsboro, Alabama. The main players: nine teenage black boys — Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wright — played by a handful of both theater-savvy and up-and-coming actors. Of note is Philadelphia’s own Rodney Hicks as Haywood Patterson.
Every character in the musical contributed an equally unique and significant perspective to the plot. Though if one were to designate a “main” character, it would most likely be Patterson. To be sure, Hicks lives up to the role. He embodies the anguish of the boys as black individuals and the defiance of African Americans as a whole.
Assuredly, Patterson and crew have justifiable reason to agonize when arrested for false accusation of rape by two white girls, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, also bumming a train ride. As a result, the once-unaffiliated group is forced into an intimate social and political entanglement that illustrates the racism rampant in the Depression-era South.
The publicly coined “Scottsboro boys” gained national recognition. Their legal narrative, from incessant appeals to unpromising trials and then prison sentences, flooded the popular media. In effect, the chasm between the North and the South deepened — Southerners supported conviction and Northerners encouraged liberation.
If this seems cynically poignant, it was. Admittedly, I did not expect such somber motifs further darkened by haunting musical compositions and choreography. One number in particular titled “Electric Chair” is exactly as the name suggests: electrifying and utterly disturbing. The youngest convict, Eugene Williams, dreams of his imminent death, materialized by the “ghosts” of two of the other boys who had been previously electrocuted and the tormenting guards.
Needless to say, “The Scottsboro Boys” did not avoid potentially controversial topics and related visual demonstrations. As a matter of fact, while the production team aims to minimize the offense of the conceptual aspects (I’ll explain in a moment), this very attempt is somewhat of a satirical gesture. Indeed, perhaps the most innovative feature of this musical was it being a show within a show. It uses one of theater’s most contended forms of storytelling, the minstrel show, to chronicle the case. Thus, the incorporation of humor and farce eludes the otherwise despondent mood of the situation.
All in all, each performance was gripping and made for an impressive show. What’s more, the singing voices of the performers exemplified the soul and depth of a gospel choir. In other words, the musical renditions were just as breathtaking as the acting.
The Philadelphia Theatre Company will continue to show this 12-time Tony-nominated musical at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., now until Sunday, Feb. 19.