THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (@ SpeakEasy Stage, extended through Nov. 26th) is one of Kander & Ebb’s last musicals together, Fred Ebb having died in 2004. THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS received 12 Tony nominations but that didn’t keep it from closing. You see, it’s a scathing indictment of our American past, when nine innocent Black teens were accused and convicted of rape in 1931. If that reminds you of something, it’s probably the five innocent Black and Latino teens accused and convicted of the “Central Park rape” in 1989, who were eventually freed and completely absolved of any involvement—only to be accused again by Donald Trump in 2016, as an example of our pressing need for his racist brand of “Law and Order.”
People don’t much like revisiting instances of racial injustice. It makes them uncomfortable or outright horrified to be reminded that people will go along with atrocity and not speak up, which is the searing point of Kander and Ebb’s brilliant CABARET. Just like the sardonic emcee in CABARET, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS has a menacing “Interlocutor” (Russell Garrett as the racist “master of ceremonies”) to introduce the vaudeville numbers and reinforce the spurious stereotypes.
David Thompson’s Tony winning book for the musical sets the action in a minstrel show about dubious “Dixie Justice.” Two comic “endmen,” (Maurice E. Parent and Brandon G. Green) trade jokes and play various villains, like the bowlegged white sheriff who arrests the nine and the corrupt Southern judge who locks them away. Two of the defendants (Darrell Morris, Jr. and Isaiah Reynolds) also play their accusers, two white prostitutes who, to avoid arrest, claim they were raped by the Black men. While their exaggerated portrayals are genuinely funny, the situation is anything but. It’s a difficult balance that director Paul Daigneault and company navigate perfectly.
De’Lon Grant gives a powerful, standout performance as the righteous defendant who, unlike the others, will not accept a plea bargain (“Make Friends With The Truth”) to get out of prison. The actual Scottsboro nine were tried and retried many times, the case(s) reaching the Supreme Court with little redress. Not until three years ago, long after their deaths, were the nine officially exonerated by the state of Alabama.
This being a musical, we’re treated to some stunning footwork designed by Ilyse Robbins (after Susan Stroman’s original choreography) and some stellar show-stopping, mainly from Grant (“Commencing in Chattanooga”) and from Reynolds (“Never Too Late”), but that said, music director Matthew Stern gets wonderful singing from the whole ensemble. You won’t leave humming any of the songs but you won’t forget them. Bravo SpeakEasy, for rescuing another important work—and giving us the chance here in Boston to see THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.