'Scottsboro Boys' fallout continues

Nayaba Arinde | 4/12/2011, 5:29 p.m.

"That was a choice we made," said Thompson.

The situational ethics do not sanitize what essentially is a bad idea. Why the use of blackface? Why a musical about such a tragedy in African-American history?

Why a minstrel show?

"That's a really good question," said Thompson. "We wanted to tell a true American story, and we did a lot of research. There was something very powerful about the Scottsboro Boys story. It shows so much about racism in 1930s. America and now, and what was going on in the South. We had to bring the story of racism, which was what brought them to where they were. We decided to use the form that exemplifies that racism and tells the story in a very dramatic way."

So it is an exercise in manipulating the emotions of an audience?

"I wouldn't use the word 'manipulation.' Sometimes, artists want to make the audience experience the tangible feeling of what is being explored, Thompson said. "We want to make the audience feel uncomfortable and angry and have dialogue."

The "Scottsboro Boys" ends with the actors in vaudeville outfits and blackface. They are already Black. What's the conversation saying?

Thompson replied, "They are only in blackface for 90 seconds, and they have to put it on in order to be able to take it off in the end in an act of civil disobedience, and walk away and say, 'No, we are human beings,' and they matter and they were no longer participating in the form. It is a very dramatic moment. It's controversial, and it's tough, and it's hard to watch."

Told that this reporter was offended pretty much from beginning to the end by the concept, the presentation and the presumption that this worked as a vehicle, Thompson said, "There are many ways to tell a story. Writers are storytellers. We are not sociologists. We are trying to tell a story in the most honest way we can. We don't start out trying to be controversial. But now people are having a dialogue about something they might not have been able to talk about. It inspires them to have a conversation, to form an opinion."

The AmNews asked the relevance of the scene where the "white" sheriff tortured a 12-year-old Black boy by placing him in and out of an electric chair while the lights dimmed and a "zzzzzzzing" noise sounded, and he was called a "shock absorber" and ended with the two "corpses" and the 12-year-old boy getting up and tap-dancing their hearts out.

"It was a choice, but it is rooted in fact," said the writer.

The AmNews asked Thompson if he thought he'd ever witness a show called "Holocaust: The Musical" wherein victims came dancing in and out of a gas chamber.

"It's not the same thing," he responded. The paper countered that indeed it was. "I wouldn't see it, no. There're shows that I don't want to see," he finally conceded. "It's a very valid point."

The paper asked if he had thought that wasn't important because these were Black folks being belittled. Thompson said that writings by the Scottsboro Boys and court transcripts showed that the guards did indeed torture the young men by making them sleep in the room with the electric chair and teasing them about their death. "This is showing the brutally of how mishandled these boys were. Theatrically, we have to make people uncomfortable and angry about a 12-year-old being tortured. You're entertained at certain times, and you're being repulsed at others."