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The Scottsboro Boys

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Minstrel shows were a successful staple of American entertainment in the 1800s and, surprisingly, all the way into the mid-twentieth century. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney appeared in blackface in Babes on Broadway in the 1940s, Bing Crosby performed a blackface routine in the popular Christmas film Holiday Inn, and, of course, the very white Al Jolson gained fame with his rendition of "Mammy." After the civil rights movement kicked into high gear, the form was considered humiliating and racist. So, it is a wonder that the creative team of Susan Stroman (director/choreographer), John Kander and Fred Ebb (music and lyrics), and David Thompson (book) would choose this form to tell the very sad story of nine young black boys who were jailed unjustly in 1931 in the South.

The nine are: Ozie Powell (Gilbert L. Bailey II), Olen Montgomery (David Bazemore), Andy Wright (Christopher James Culberson), Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), Willie Roberson (Justin Prescott), Roy Wright (Clinton Roane), Clarence Norris (Cedric Sanders), Eugene Williams (Deandre Sevon), and Charles Weems (Christian Dante White).

Beowulf Boritt's utilitarian set consisting of a pile of silver chairs on a nearly empty stage begins to define the story. A lone woman sits on a chair as a very loud drum beat ominously introduces the characters as they perform a rousing song and dance, "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!" Mr. Interlocutor (Hal Linden), Mr. Bones (Trent Armand Kendall), and Mr. Tambo (J. C. Montgomery), familiar figures in minstrel shows, jazz up the crowd with jokes as the story begins.

The first and most central character of the nine is Haywood Patterson (Henry, Tony-nominated for lead actor in a musical who performed the role in the New York production), takes center stage as we learn that the nine are riding the rails in search of work when they are accused of raping two white women who are also passengers on the train. These women (played by White and Bailey, in an amusing turn) were known to be prostitutes, and, as they might be jailed themselves, cooked up the false rape story.

The action continues with the men imprisoned, tried, convicted of the assaults, and sentenced to death. The relentless minstrel show progresses. Henry's acting chops are on exhibition as he delivers a wrenching number, "Nothin'" in which he denies the accusations but also plays the caricature of a stereotypical southern Negro. It is a brilliant piece of work.

The indefatigable Stroman, whose impressive Broadway record includes The Producers, Showboat, and Oklahoma, among others, is audacious in her choreographic choices in numbers like the tap dancing "Electric Chair." Her ensemble is, to a man, graceful, energetic, and laudable. Linden, Montgomery, and Kendall are also standouts in multiple roles.

There is a case to be made that the minstrel theme becomes tiresome as unhappy fact follows unhappy fact in the boys' saga, all the while a brassy veneer surrounds the action. However critical one might be of the delivery method, the execution of the

production can hardly be faulted. It is crisp, well timed, and has all the elements of a bold, memorable play.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.