I’ll be completely honest — I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about the Guthrie’s production of “The Scottsboro Boys.”
While the talent on stage was no doubt apparent, the story and presentation of that story took me a little by surprise. True, I had no idea what the show was going to be like or really, what it was all about before settling into my seat Saturday night. However, I wasn’t expecting the type of evening that followed.
There is no question that the story is powerful and — I believe — one that should be more prevalently known. I had no idea who the Scottsboro Boys were, I admit, but it’s safe to say that I’ll never forget them after this show.
The production is very unique — with a nearly all male, black cast using the power of imagination to retell the tale through a minstrel show.
I found it interesting to read more about the elements of a minstrel show, something I was not familiar with prior to this performance. The form of this type of entertainment usually took shape in lowbrow comedy, blackface makeup and a mutli-part process involving cakewalk dancing and costumed songs.
Based on a true story, the show follows a group of nine black men who were unjustly accused of rape in the 1930s through their trials to reveal the truth. A heart-wrenching, gut-aching story of injustice — and really, not the first thing you’d think of when you hear the word “musical.”
And perhaps that’s what has kept me still puzzled for a response when someone asks, “How was it?” On the fact that I continue to think about the cruelty of the story and can’t categorize my opinions into a few quick statements makes me think that it served its purpose — to educate and to initiate the conversation.
Without giving away too much, the story really keeps you rooting for the underdogs, hoping that in some small chance of fate, it’ll all turn out for the best. But it’s a cold, aching reality when the history of the story simply can’t have that “Hollywood” spin.
It’s that deep, intensity of the storyline that sometimes made it tough to watch in a musical fashion. And yes, I realize that not all musicals are sunny, happy fairy tales. However, in one particular scene titled, “Electric Chair,” the cast tap dances to the sounds of prisoners being electrocuted in one of the young Scottsboro Boys’ dreams. It’s a tough act to swallow.
And while it’s true the death of young, black men was considered a form of entertainment during this era in history, it’s sometimes hard to watch that on a Saturday night.
Still, the talented actors and performers who are a part of this production are not to be missed. In particular, Joshua Henry’s portrayal of Haywood Patterson was immensely forceful and emotional. Beyond the powerful presence he brought to the role, the caliber of his ballads was simply impressive.
And young Jeremy Gumbs, who perfectly played the part of Eugene Williams, performed at the same height as his fellow, older performers and couldn’t help but melt your heart with every line.
To be honest, I think the fact that this show has left me feeling so perplexed and affected means it did what it set out to do. It may not be the happily-ever-after production that one hopes for, but it’s real, it’s raw and it’s unapologetically honest. And in the world of sunny musicals, that’s not only startling, but refreshing.
Sara Boyd is a web producer and columnist at WCCO.COM.