Kwando M. Kinshasa, PhD
African-American Studies Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
There is a lynching occurring on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, and it is a bloody and gruesome affair. However, in a manner typical of many post-slave and supposedly post-segregationist societies, this lynching occurs in the format of a cultural exhibition, a theatrical performance that supposedly addresses a major judicial event in America’s judicial history: the 1931 Scottsboro, Alabama, rape case.
The resulting performance, as currently performed, unfortunately implies that tragic judicial injustices institutionalized by terroristic, racist mentalities, if supported by special financial interest, can trivialize history’s victims to the extent that later generations might not understand or appreciate the value of their own successful struggles against insipid racism, economic exploitation and acculturation. Such is the case with the Scottsboro case and its current presentation through the supposed artistic framework of a minstrel show!
Yes, a tragic sage of judicial terror and attempted state murder depicted through the medium of a minstrel show is now applauded by some. Sadly, such reenactments as this do not simply debase the past and its on stage reenactors, but it also reduces the audience to an unenviable role of being conspiratorial spectators to a cultural lynching, a cultural felony. Such is the case with the recent Broadway production entitled “The Scottsboro Boys.”
As in the past, public lynchings throughout America’s bloody racial history, either before or after the 20th century, were staged not only to murder their intended victims, but more succinctly and slyly to also violate and then execute the cultural and political sensitivities of all who witnessed the event. However, when such an act is performed symbolically within a playhouse, the audience, regardless of their shock, is encouraged to become socially, culturally and physically committed to observe the social script or narrative as it unfolds. If they choose not to do so, it would clearly be at their own financial default. Hence, an emotional and financially entrapped audience is metaphorically trapped to become an enthusiastic crowd, a disgruntled rabble, a confused, disinterested flock or even an angry mob! In this instance, they do so while becoming witnesses to a cultural and politically torturous minstrel performance, a cultural felony entitled “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Tragically, the attempt to address a major event in African-American history through the stage format of a minstrel show is both absurd and an affront to the cultural and political integrity of this ethnic group and the ongoing experiences of people of the African Diaspora. The crassly concocted minstrel show does little to address the solemnity of the nine Scottsboro defendants’ continual brutalization, beatings, torture, and psychological suffering by guards and wardens while in several prisons throughout the 1930s and most of the 1940s.
Nor does it explore the reality that the Scottsboro defendants were, in truth, a tragic metaphor for hundreds of thousands of African-American youths trying to maintain a level of survival within a nation, America, whose laws were actively functioning to eliminate any semblance that their social, cultural and political wellbeing was a recognized fact.
Yet, the attempt made by the producers, writers and directors of this creative fail to deliver a production that addresses musically the Scottsboro case and instead reeks with an intent to profit from the anguishing experiences of victims, whose experiences of institutionalized racial barbarity are well documented. To then utilize a musical format, the minstrel show concept that in itself emerges from a racist pre-Civil War 1850s format that utilized whites actors in black face to portray enslaved or marginalized American Blacks as buffoons, is not only to commit a cultural felony of the highest and most debasing kind, but is to suggest a political stance that desires strife and controversy for profit.
It clearly is an attempt to reduce past victimization premised upon racial and judicial injustice into contemporary characterizations of buffoonery, while entertaining, encouraging and appealing, if not converting, the base mentality of the audience into a cultural lynch mob who applaud and welcome the next entertaining scene.
As one of few individuals who had the pleasure and educational experience of knowing and interviewing a Scottsboro defendant, I am particularly incensed by the lack of artistic skill and the immature creativity, historical inaccuracy and obvious lack of character development throughout this production. I say this not because when I reviewed this “musical production” at the Vineyard Theatre it appeared amateurish and racially and religiously bias, but as a result of querying a number of its actors about their various characterizations and knowledge about the Scottsboro defendants. While their lack of knowledge about the nine Scottsboro defendants was apparent, they also appeared uninformed or cognizant of the few living scholars on the Scottsboro case, who could have advised them on their characterizations–or that two of these scholars were standing next to them as we spoke!
For example, I discussed one particular scene with the actors that related to their dancing around the electric chair with wires attached to their head while a light bulb went on and off in their hand. When I asked them what they thought about Clarence Norris’ bravado when daring a prison guard to let him sit in an unconnected electric chair just a few feet from his death house cell in Alabama’s Kilby Prison, they simply laughed but had no response beyond that! They appeared clueless about this incident.
In Norris’ recollection of that event, it was the guard who dared the defendants, and him in particular, to even look at the nearby electric chair. In turn, Norris took up the challenge by sitting in the chair twice! Tragically, the directors of the minstrel show used this incident in an unbelievable, tasteless and counterfeit interpretation of Norris’ experience. It was, in fact, creative stupidity on the stage.
This incident, of course, was no joking matter for Norris. It was, however, a test of nerve, a man-to-man confrontation between him and the guard’s racist taunting. He meant to prove that regardless of their maliciousness, he was fearless. For Norris who spent five years on death row at Alabama’s Kilby Prison and who witnessed over that period of time the smell of burning flesh as 17 men were executed just a few feet from his cell, this was not a dancing or laughing matter, as depicted in this production.
My seven years of friendship with Mr. Clarence Norris ended with a series of interviews that revealed a man of intellect [“The Man from Scottsboro,” published by McFarland Inc.], as well as one who was patient and extremely literate about the surrounding world, though he could barely write his own name.
When I met him, he was the last surviving member of the nine Scottsboro defendants, and throughout our friendship he never depicted any of his fellow colleagues in a negative light. And while he certainly made references to their differences, he viewed himself as the last living spokesperson of their legacy and tried to honor it.
To have that legacy defiled by the current minstrel show at the Lyceum Theatre is to dishonor the lives of the nine Scottsboro defendants who suffered in the dungeons of Alabama’s prisons and prison farms. It is to defile the memory of thousands of African-Americans who were beaten, tortured, threatened and murdered as innocent victims in prisons throughout this nation and of those who presently sit on death row as innocent victims of judicial injustice. It is to defile the historical memory of African-Americans and their too often suppressed pain of living in a society where others feel secure in committing cultural felonies against them as in this minstrel show. This is no dancing matter, unless some feel that cultural lynching is another form of entertainment.