“I remember going to a rally to free the Scottsboro Boys in 1933 in Harlem,” Flora Polk, 84, told the AmNews. “It was my first demonstration and I was about 5 or 6 years old. I was with my parents on West 131 Street between 7th and 8th avenues. I remember it was packed. We all had to chant, ‘The Scottsboro Boys must not die!’ It was so long ago, but I remember it.”
The fallout from the “Scottsboro Boys,” the controversial minstrel show on Broadway, is not abating.
Polk said that she has not seen the show.
“I resent the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ show. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to sit through it,” she told the AmNews, noting that she disputed comments from a colleague that, “You have to see it to understand the concept, and these young men are employed, and that’s wonderful.”
“A director I know said that he wouldn’t do the show himself, and that you would think to yourself: ‘Do I really want to go on stage and make money out of someone else’s misery?’”
Half an hour after Sunday’s demonstration began outside the Lyceum Theater last week, a couple of cops arrived to put up barricades. Freedom Party supporters chanting, “We say no to racism,” and “Shut it down,” deftly avoided the maneuver and marched down 45th Street, crossed the street at Broadway, went on the other side and got to hollering again.
“I didn’t know!” a white patron said to one of the protestors. “I can’t believe they are trivializing this story,” she said.
A few nervous theater-goers stopped to ask what the demonstration was about. Informed, some shook their heads, while others got engaged in a full conversation. Others turned away and walked swiftly into the theater.
On Tuesday night, when this reporter, on assignment, went to the show, again the audience appeared to be 99 percent white. Black folks smiled politely, not sure what was going to go down.
Welcomed to the Alabama minstrel show by the white “interlocutor” (the master of ceremonies in a minstrel show), the audience settled in for the ride.
The shoeshine shuffling began almost from the gate. Singing loudly and boisterously, the nine Scottsboro Boys introduced themselves before being unceremoniously accosted by two other actors portraying the white sheriff and guards and the prosecutor. They embraced caricatures and isms that built up a pretentious camaraderie amongst the audience, who were in effect laughing at Black men steppin’ and fetchin’ and at Blacks playing whites–but from a white perspective. The two women who falsely accused the nine of rape are played by two of the nine, and the bitter irony seems to be lost on the white audience, which feels comfortable laughing at skits about Black men being electrocuted, lynched and dancing up a storm in the process.
Speaking with the writer of the play, David Thompson, this reporter asked, “What made you think that doing a minstrel show was not offensive?” The reporter asked, rather than all the buffoonery, why can’t a white guy play a white guy?
“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.”
Thompson defended his “artistic choices,” while adding, “The feeling we want people to walk away with is that this is not in anyway trying to be racist. It is the opposite of that.”
The AmNews asked if, as a white man, he understood that some people were offended by the concept and the notion that he was not sensitive to the feelings and opinions of a community he’s not a part of?
“That’s a great conversation about what it is to have a white man writing about the Black experience.
“People can make the choice if they don’t like the show, or if they don’t want to see the show. The show does not celebrate racism. That’s not our intention,” Thompson said.
Ah, but there’s an old cliche about the road to hell etc…
“If people sat there and don’t like it, they are more than entitled not to like it. That’s the nature of what art is all about. Artists don’t write their own reviews,” said Thompson. “Some people like it; others don’t like it,” said Thompson. “They might not have to see it, but they shouldn’t draw the conclusion about what it’s about because of what they’ve heard. The piece is a conversation about race. It is crucial, and we need to have conversations about race in America that are open and honest.”
Harlem Hospital volunteer Polk said, “I haven’t seen it. It hurts me to think that something like this is being trivialized. A while ago, I heard that ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ was going to be done as a minstrel show, I said ‘Oh, come on! It’s gotta to be a joke.’ A man at my church said that I must have heard it wrong, that they couldn’t possibly do a minstrel show. Then I heard more about it and heard it was on Broadway. How could you find any happiness, any joy in something so tragic?”
“It can’t just be me who remembers the demonstrations,” said Polk, who still teaches in her uptown neighborhood. “I think there are other people in my age group who feel the same way. If we could just get together. Let’s sit down and talk about it because they’ve lived it like I’ve lived it. I heard that they have been talking about doing this show for 10 years. Maybe they thought we’d all be dead, and so they could go ahead and do it now.”
“When they start writing musicals about the gas chambers or about 9/11 or about Japanese internment camps, then you can do a musical about one of the greatest tragedies in our history,” said Freedom Party protestor Omowale Clay. “But you know better. They would never do that. You just assume you can mock us in a minstrel show, in a musical, in blackface. You were wrong. We will not accept this.
“There will be another demonstration outside the Lyceum Theater at 45th Street and Broadway on Sunday, November 21 at 2 p.m. Our dignity is not for sale. We want to shut this production down.”