Injustice in Dixie: "The Scottsboro Boys"

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The Scottsboro Boys
Lyceum Theater
149 W. 45th St.
New York, New York

On March 24, 1931, nine black teenagers jumped on to the boxcar of a train rolling through northern Alabama to travel through the Deep South in search of jobs and new lives. They were involved in a scuffle with some white men, who called the police. Two women on the train, prostitutes Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, then charged that the nine teens raped them. The teens, dubbed the “Scottsboro Boys” by the press because several were from Scottsboro, Alabama, were arrested at the next railroad stop. They swore they did not touch the two white women.

What followed was a series of trials, court appeals and years of prison for the boys, who never stopped proclaiming their innocence on what quickly appeared to be trumped-up charges. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, black and white, marched in the streets to support the Scottsboro Boys. What happened to the Scottsboro Boys, the victims of lying witnesses, all-white southern juries and Jim Crow justice, should not have happened to anyone, black or white.

Their story is the focus of a new and unique Broadway musical, The Scottsboro Boys, a searing and spectacular look at their case. It is a brilliant play that shoves its own fist high into the night sky to protest the injustice of what happened to the nine teens, and every other innocent man or woman incarcerated in America.

The music and lyrics are by Fred Kander and John Ebb, the legendary team that gave us Cabaret, New York, New York, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Here, the duo threw out all of the rules of the theater and wrote an old-fashioned minstrel show, with their own Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, and run by their own interlocutor. The story of the boys unfolds within the framework of the minstrel show. This format was chosen because the minstrel show was a success for more than eighty years in America not because of its snappy tunes, but because its blackfaced white performers continually demeaned blacks, as do all the whites in the play. It is the perfect setting for show, the ultimate musical irony of the story.

The audience is jolted when the ensemble erupts in the first song, “Hey. Hey, Hey, Hey” and the cast, hands waving and legs flying, dances its way from the theater lobby to the stage. The electricity never ends. The old Kander and Ebb magic is still there, but this time the songs have cutting edge racial and ethnic lyrics, such as the number about the “Jew money” that southern racists contend is supporting the Scottsboro Boys’ defense and the opening number about boys who were “as black as Sambo.”

Director Susan Stroman has won five Tony Awards and in this play you understand why. She takes the unlikely format of the minstrel show and the accusatory book by David Thompson and turns them into a scalding drama about prejudice.

When the boys are arrested for “rape” they are worried. One had a cousin who was hanged by a mob just for looking at a white woman. They meet a young boy who is selling souvenir dolls of them—hanging from trees. The jailhouse guards tease them in a song about how bodies writhe in the electric chair as the light on the stage blinks back and forth from the waves of electricity resonating through the chair.

The Scottsboro boys are found guilty in a three-day trial and eight are sentenced to death. The ninth, the youngest, is sent to prison. Their hopes are buoyed, though, when the U.S. Supreme Court orders a new trial for them because their attorneys were incompetent. Then one of the two “raped” women, Ruby Bates, admits that she lied about the rape. The boys did nothing to her or her friend Victoria Price. All seems well. Price, though, luxuriating in all the publicity she has been getting in the trials, sticks to her original, fabricated story and the boys are convicted again by another all-white jury.

Tens of thousands of people protested the verdict in New York. Thousands marched in front of the White House. There were protests in 110 U.S. cities. More new trials were granted and more protests held but the verdicts by white juries were always the same—guilty.

In the end, the four youngest of the Scottsboro Boys were freed after several years in prison. Several more were paroled after six years in jail. The last of the men died in prison.

The acting in the play makes the story work. The high stepping, grinning sheriff, played by Colman Domingo, and his deputy, Forrest McClendon, who also plays defense attorney Sam Leibowitz, play their roles like exaggerated cartoon characters come to life, to a scary life. Joshua Henry is superb as the angry defendant Haywood Patterson, the star of the show, who never bends to white demands that he plead guilty, even years later, when such a plea would free him. The actors playing the other boys—Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III, and Christian Dante White—are, together, a talented ensemble. John Cullum, the veteran stage star, is good as the interlocutor and in other roles, constantly portraying the kind, gentle old southerner who understands the plight of the blacks but, well, just can’t do anything about it. Sorry.

There is a maudlin scene at the end of the play when the minstrel show format returns. This time, we see the Scottsboro Boys dancing in colorful minstrel uniforms, high hats and in blackface. The blackface, the symbol of the minstrels and their racist legacy, turns the stomach.

The play ends in dramatic fashion when we finally learn the identity of the quiet woman who drifts through the story


The history missing is a sense of how angry Northerners were about the arrests and repeated verdicts and how the guilty findings re-affirmed the belief that no black man or woman could get justice from Southern white juries in an age when lynching was still considered high sport in the South.

Historically, the boys were not tried together, as presented on stage, but in four separate court cases. There were witnesses who testified that they witnessed the rapes as the train passed them. A doctor testified that the two women had semen in them (they had sex with their white traveling companions the night before). The doctor did not add that he saw no signs of physical attack. Left out, too, was any mention that as the verdicts in the first trial were announced, a large crowd outside the courthouse sang “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”

The play seems to absolve the NAACP of any wrongdoing, but at first its leaders did not jump to the boys’ defense because the civil rights organization was squeamish about involvement in any rape case, an explosive issue in the South.

And, too, the drama does not recognize that the verdicts in the Scottsboro trials were, in fact, deplored by many whites in the South. By the end of 1934, most southern newspapers called for the boys to be freed. The editor of the Richmond News Leader wrote “the men are being sentenced to death primarily because they are black…”

There is no happy ending in The Scottsboro Boys, no love story and no victory of good over evil. The boys, when freed, did not live happily ever after. Yet, it is a sensational play about American history, which sometimes lacks triumphs and heroes, too.

The edited down version of the historical story and some omissions do not take away from the raw, seething power of the musical, a theatrical tour de force that is a scathing denunciation of bigotry.

Produced by: Barry and Fran Weissler, Jackie Barlia Florin, Janet Pailet/Sharon Carr, Nederlander Presentations, the Shubert Organization, Beechwood Entertainment and others.

STARS: Interlocutor (John Cullum), Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo), Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon), Haywood Patterson (Joshua Henry), the Scottsboro Boys (Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Cobey, Jeremy Gumbs, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III. Christian Dante White. Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, book by David Thompson, directed by Susan Stroman

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