Past meets present day in heartbreaking history lesson
|Raven Theatre presents|
|Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys
(An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)
Review by Clint May
“We need to come to grips with the fact that we have an overly punitive
and racially discriminatory system. Changes comes slowly.”
As understatements go, that one’s a doozy. That’s from Judge John Gleeson (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York), speaking on this week’s episode of HBO’s Vice, “Fixing the System.” The focus of the documentary—which also features an unprecedented prison visit from President Obama—is on the disastrous war on drugs and its disproportionate effect on the African American and Latino populations. Direct from Death Row explores that criminally slow change and the absurd presumptive guilt our society lays on certain people by virtue of the color of their skin. Many theatrical productions have explored famous trials and drawn the correlation between that world and the showbiz of the law (Chicago perhaps the most famous). Mark Stein’s vaudeville-infused, Brechtian-embellished work continues that tradition, and although its message has sadly been never more contemporary, Raven Theatre has brought it to the Midwest for a premiere at a time when it can become part of an ever-rising crescendo crying out for change.
Like its later conceptual cousin, Burning Bluebeard, Stein’s conceit is a work of non-illusory theatre. The nine boys exist as returnees from beyond the grave (the last “boy” died in 1989) who exist in our time and are aware of our presence. The nine boys were accused of raping two young white women in 1931 while “hoboing” on a train in Tennessee and Direct from Death Row follows the years of trials and appeals that turned their case into a cause célèbre. Even as it became abundantly clear that the whole case was based on fiction, many of the boys became men waiting for a mystical justice,many on death row. Their case would set several beneficial legal precedents while their own lives were largely left in ruin.
The labyrinthine legal system has its perfect corollary in vaudeville. Scottsboro Boys is largely successful because the showiness doesn’t ever overshadow the core focus on these boys and their unique lives. Its cast does double duty in several cases, playing the white characters (i.e., the legal players, and the two girls). A commedia-style device allows a reversal of black-face with David Knezz’s hauntingly designed masks. They become the caricatures that the boys saw them as—entities that existed to exploit other causes.
A Communist Party rep (Breon Arzell as Joe Brodsky) wants to co-opt their case to align their efforts to the civil rights cause (ripe for the revolution!) by hiring them a showy New York Jewish lawyer (Andrew Malone as Sam Leibowitz). NAACP Rep Walter White (Brandon Greenhouse) vies for control of the valuable “commodity” of the boys’ fates and would eventually blame the miscarriage on the “…cynical use of human misery by Communists in propagandizing Communism.” Each tries to beguile the boys with a song and show. The Communist promises magic with a show of the same, while White glosses his promises with tent revival antics. Various Scottsboro Mothers (more women than would account for the boys on trial, one notes wryly) emerge to glom on for whatever potential chance even crumbs of fame can deliver. At key points the cast must remind us that the things being said by judges and lawyers are actual quotes because it’d be unbelievable without that caveat.
Underneath the din, some of the boys find their lives actually improve in prison with the money pouring in from supporters, though others are quick to point out that it was brutal and dehumanizing. They fight to keep solidarity as the system and internal fractioning threaten to destroy a unity created somewhat by happenstance. Overseen by Haywood Patterson (a charismatic Kevin Patterson)—seen as both the most guilty and most defiant—their anger, frustration, dreams and humanity roil off into the audience. Despite the darkness at the core, Scottsboro Boys has moments of humor and light to alleviate the oppression; it is above all entertaining as it delivers its message from beyond time and the grave.
Raven co-founder and director Michael Menendian adds a feather to his impressive career with this work, keeping this very talented young cast expertly balanced. Creating a character beneath a mask is not easy, and only Patterson does no dual roles. Breon Arzell deserves a special call out, his background in dance imbuing his carnivalean Brodsky with a snappiness and control worthy of the great age of vaudeville. Katrina D. Richard does triple duty as the young Eugene (perhaps the most hurt of all the boys), a Mother, and the distasteful “victim” Victoria Price in a stunning Raven debut. The technical team of Ray Toler on set and Diane D. Fairchild on lights create the moody, dusty atmosphere that mirrors the miasma of pathetic confusion and despair that oozes through time to our present day. Plain-sung numbers such as “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” add a touch of ironic grace, while Harley White Jr.’s original songs provide commentary. Frederick Harris makes the piano another character. The blank look on his face when asked to launch into “one of those great Reconstruction songs” is priceless (hint: there are none, for good reason).
Scottsboro Boys can be a little confusing at first if you’re not grounded in the specifics, but that’s all to effect. Stein keeps us ungrounded and willfully time skips the story when it serves the purpose of the tale because linearity is hardly important. Ultimately the totality of what happened becomes all too clear. When the denouement arrives and the boys get their curtain calls that detail their life after the trials to their afterlife, the sorrow is palpable and the continuing indictment searing.
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys continues through November 14th at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $42 (students w/ ID: $18), and are available by phone (773-338-2177) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at RavenTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Dean La Prairie
Kevin Patterson (Haywood Patterson), Andrew Malone (Charlie Weems, Sam Liebowitz), Breon Arzell (Willie Roberson, Joe Brodsky), Semaj Miller (Olen Montgomery, General Knight), Brandon Greenhouse (Andy Wright, Walter White), Tamarus Harvell (Clarence Norris, Judge Horton, Prosecutor), Katrina D. Richard (Eugene Williams, Victoria, Old Victoria, Scottsboro Mother), Anna Dauzvardis (Ozie Powell, Ruby Bates Scottsboro Mother), Charli Williams (Leroy Wright, Scottsboro Mother)
behind the scenes
Michael Menendian (director), Frederick Harris (musical director), Kathleen Dennis (choreographer, magic consultant), Sarah Jo White (costume design), Ray Toler (scenic design), Mary O’Dowd (properties design, set dressing), Diane D. Fairchild (lighting design), Marissa Geocaris (asst. lighting design), Joe Court (sound design, projection design), Jason K. Martin (dialect coach), David Knezz (mask design). Merje Veski (scenic artist), Jaqueline Wills (assistant director), Kate Masiak (stage manager), Hazel Flowers-McCabe (asst. stage manager), Justin Castellano (master electrician), Conor Clark (technical director), Nathan Waters (carpenter), Dean La Prairie (photographer)