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Scottsboro Boys-A Modern Minstrel Play

My partner and I went to the Vintage Theatre a few nights ago in Denver, CO to see a musical titled “The Scottsboro Boys”. It is inspired by the true story of nine young African American men who were falsely accused of rape and arrested in the spring of 1931. The “Boys”, ages 12-19 were held in prison collectively for over 80 years. The case has inspired an array of art and literature including ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee loosely based on the case. The musical was also a minstrel play; minstrel being a type of comic approach show that specifically would mock people of African descent in a variety of acts, songs, dances, etc. “The Scottsboro Boys” play was not only exposing the history of the case but reintroducing the effects of a twisted, artistic, and racially motivated stage practice through minstrel shows. 

The play was specifically written for an all-black cast to always play it (minus one character.) The music score was exciting and engaging, upbeat when needed, and loaded with somber at other times. While also having a strange humorous tone to it that was almost offensive given the severity of the case. The tones and vibes the show played with kept me intrigued and in “Lala Land”, essentially separate from the emotion of the story. I laughed at the deputy and ignored the crying woman creeping in the corner of the stage… It wasn’t until the end of the show during a Q&A where the cast reminded the audience the play was Minstrel and specifically written to give these undertones of racism and irony to such a history. 

I was instantly ported into the art of the entire play and the way it was delivered to make you not only acknowledge the sick history and borderline humor and irony behind it but as well as delivering a perspective of how white America already viewed African Americans long before these young men were falsely arrested and held in prison-for a collective of 80 years. 

Minstrel shows began in 1830 before the American Civil War in the 1860s. White performers would imitate what they saw slaves doing. Whether that be dancing, singing, walking, or talking. They would perform this with burnt cork, or a black greasepaint on their faces with a white clown mouth, beginning the history of ‘Blackface’ -Jim Crow. 

Blackface minstrels were the first theatrical form that was distinctly American. It got so popular with entertainment methods in America it was introduced to an even classier setting like opera houses. Blackface was the “epicenter” of the music industry; meaning if it wasn’t blackface it wasn’t selling. Blackface was bridging gaps of ignorance with “Art” bringing out new numbers the entertainment industry hadn’t seen before.

Throughout the play there was a black woman present on stage who appeared to be mourning. She seemed to just hustle about feeling her feelings and crying. She was later revealed as the symbolism of the black mom, daughter, auntie, sister, that is present around any black man abused by the system. Reminding me of the black women we often see mourning the untimely death of their sons every other month on national news, or the sisters I’ve seen speaking on countless documentaries or interviews. The play was the evening after Nathaniel Woods’s execution in Alabama (the same state as Scottsboro). The “wailing women” gives the audience an emotional route into the story, without breaking minstrel formality of upbeat and silly. The woman just walked the stage in and out of backlight crying, wiping her eyes, then continuing into the next scene. Director Betty Hart chose to write the woman in with an extended amount of time than originally scripted.

The Scottsboro Boys is written in true minstrel form even has a closings scene with “The “Boys”  dressed in tuxedos and top hats with blackface painted, where they “shucked and jived” down the isles into the crowd and hit an intense crescendo in a song that bleeds with uncomfortably(the truest beauty in art). Being that my partner and I were the only blacks in that audience, we felt the air shift during this closing scene. The Q&A at the end of the show brought about an expression of that shift in energy. When one caucasian in attendance asked, “how are you all able to reopen the wounds you feel every show?”. The cast all jumped at once to answer but the lead role, Christopher Razor, responded passionately saying, “these aren’t old wounds. I. Am. A. Black. Person and I feel the occurrence of this situation almost every day. Who stood on the frontlines to protect these young men in Scottsboro, who said this is wrong

no one.” Even the lawyer who worked to defend them later had different views on the things he stood for. The audience paused and it seemed everyone felt the passion behind what Razor had said. Leading another caucasian patron to ask, “how does it feel to perform something like this in Colorado where it is mainly for a white audience?”

The actors responded that they felt “locked in with one another simply off looking alike and being black together in the space.” Much like the actual boys might have felt throughout the duration of the ordeal. Up until the blackface scene where they said they felt ”heavy emotion” when they surrounded the crowd. One caucasian woman who spoke during the Q&A was wiping tears as she spoke saying she was a “defense attorney and knowing what these boys had to go through absolutely broke her heart.” You could hear the pain and dismay in her voice. Everyone in the room could relate to the confusion of the why and how. 

Prompting another woman to ask, “how do you all process the emotion of the show night after night”. At least 4 actors responded saying, “a lot of crying” then laughing immediately afterward saying they definitely dropped a lot of tears backstage and over the course of time truly became the characters feeling the emotion they had. The Cast took 1 minute of silence every evening before a show for the nine young men involved. The director, Hart, mentioned having to take the usage of the term “boys” away from herself and the cast unless it was in the script. Knowing the term was often used to demean black men she didn’t want to play into the very subconscious the show was exposing.

The artistry within minstrel shows is imitation being flattery. White performers consistently brought a tone of “funny” to everything they did within it. Meaning that’s what they saw looking at their slaves. Dancing, singing, jokes, camaraderie, lack of structure in their terms of normality. 100 years later black authors and directors took the concept of twisted racist imitation art, imitated it. Incorporated a factual storyline, set a tone of faith, hope, support of one another, and tenacity within the boys/cast. At the same time ignoring the emotion of the story and simply placing a crying black woman in the corner of the room. Completely imitating the world around

them through art. “The Scottsboro Boys” play was the most eloquent interpretation of America I have ever seen, cast perfectly. The history, truth, and continuance of the situation is staggering and relevant, mind-blowing. 

Art has layers and can live on forever through interpretation, and questions. Erykah Badu once said, “the purpose of performance art is to spark a question in someone and inspire or challenge them to respond”. Minstrel shows as a whole had people asking about the heart and tenacity of a slave. And 100 years later black performers responded to the timelessness of minstrel show interpretation by attaching history and reoccurring ideologies. 

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