Monday, April 3, 2017

Walking the Line with The Scottsboro Boys

By Jennifer Haaland

The first sounds from the pit in The Scottsboro Boys feel lopsided. No listener can ignore the jarring contrast of a gallows bass drumbeat set tightly alongside light-hearted jingles of Southern minstrel melody.

Like our bold community of Valley theatre artists and civic change-makers, those snugly-fitted, unlikely musical lines announce Phoenix Theatre (PT) and Black Theatre Troupe's (BTT) spring musical partnership that courageously walks uncomfortable, parchment-thin lines to inspire justice.

"Silence is not an option," says cast member Walter Belcher who plays Tambo. "Theatre goers are pretty wise people who are open to challenge, regardless of their demographic. I applaud [PT Artistic Director] Michael Barnard for knowing this racially charged show would be a risk and, even more, for knowing it was important to walk it."

Based on the shocking, wrongful-conviction history of nine young black men in 1931, The Scottsboro Boys story commences on a Southern railway line when two white women cry wolf. The show's vaudeville, jazz and gospel music is filled with spunk and energy that helped earn it twelve Tony nominations in 2010. The fun, however, is often punctuated with dark irony or somber afterthought.

Belcher, who has worked for years with both Black Theatre Troupe and Phoenix Theatre, refers to his on-stage responses as rim shots, saying. "Tambo, or Mr. Tambourine, is the one who puts exclamation points on what just happened in the show."

Played by a black actor, Tambo is a role that, in the traditional minstrel style of theatre, would have been portrayed by a white male in 'black face.' Belcher thinks writers Kander and Ebb have flipped history by creating Tambo's character.

"We deconstruct the minstrel style to tell the story's truth," director and choreographer of the production Jeff Whiting--an expert on the history of The Scottsboro Boys--says. "It gives 'the boys' a chance to be known as individuals."

Whiting's expertise comes from living and breathing the show since its inception. Before, during and after its Broadway run, he was the associate director/choreographer of The Scottsboro Boys. He labels the story "a tragedy in American history," unlike any other Broadway musical he's worked--which include Young Frankenstein, Hair and Big Fish, to name a few.

"This is more than just entertainment," he says about producing a work that addresses the injustices of 1930s events, "when the issue of race is even more heated today than it was in 2010. It makes an impact on the audience that causes them to think, to examine their own actions."

Chandra Crudup, on faculty in ASU's Social Work department, is also with the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy on campus. She's been hard at work with PT and BTT as the project's community engagement liaison.

"This is very timely. It's not just another tragic story. We need to re-situate the story in today's world," says Crudup, who has gathered a large community of spokespersons and socially conscious contributors to guide and deepen conversations that The Scottsboro Boys is sparking. "We've scheduled pre-show events, panel discussions and post-show dialogs" on the Phoenix Theatre campus.

So many lines to walk.  The show gingerly traverses cultural lineage and hops decades of timelines. It presents a script whose lines are heavy with innuendo and loaded with double entendre. Historical, theatrical, ethnic, musical and social lines run concurrent, intersect and sometimes draw challenges on the shifting ground.

How to resolve unrest and tension on either side of these lines is rarely black and white, but the Phoenix Scottsboro gang is talented, focused and determined. The lines are so fine that they provide closable gaps, offer buildable ties.

"Theatre can be a tool," Belcher says. "We can permeate mindsets, offer nuggets of awareness, without having people feel attacked."

Whiting agrees, "We need to push that fine line a bit. We want to find the balance. Remove the audience some from their comfort zone, but not go over that edge so that people stop listening."

"It's not very often you see musical theatre used in this way. The goal is to pull the line back-and-forth so growth can happen. There's an opportunity for community to come together," Crudup finishes.

It's joyful, it's uplifting and it's heartbreaking, this process of walking lines without crossing them. They are the thin lines Phoenix Theatre, Black Theatre Troupe, the ASU Center for the Study of Race & Democracy and Scottsboro Boys are nudging and coaxing as we all walk forward.

CLICK HERE to get tickets for The Scottsboro Boys

photos by Reg Madison Photography

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