Friday, August 27, 2010

Preparing for a Tony Award?

Last Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure, no make that challenge, of seeing the Broadway-bound musical, Scottsboro Boys at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I now understand the word "agape." No not the Greek word for love but the word for standing with her mouth open unable to close it. The musical is beyond description. I wanted to start a standing ovation half -way through when they did the showstopper dance number -- dancing around an electric chair!

The story of the Scottsboro Boys is the story of a miscarriage of justice in the depression-era South. Nine African-American young men are accused of rape, tried, and sentenced to death. The musical tells their story in song and dance (yes, song and dance) in the form of a "reverse" minstrel show. Here it's black performers being white imitators, though, fortunately not in white face. The white sheriff and his deputy; the white women supposedly raped; the white northern Jewish lawyer -- all performed by the black singers and dancers.

Everyone is open for challenge, being blasted out of the water, skewered, exposed. The northern liberals and the southern conservatives are shown in all their hypocrisy. The play's intensity grows and grows until, at the end, you are left gasping for air, the air knocked out of you by the truth, a truth you thought you knew. Far more powerful than any sermon or spoken tirade you are first lulled into submission by the music and contrasts. Then they hit you.

How can you do a musical about 1930s injustice and racism in the South? The same way you do one on pre-Hitler Nazism in Germany; or showgirls , murder, and prison in the Midwest; or a homosexual prisoner in a Latin American jail. John Kander and Fred Ebb, in their last collaboration before Ebb died, have done it just as they did in Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman. After closing here in September the musical moves to Broadway in October. I hope New York is ready - it is an amazing musical.

For me what hit home the most was how demeaning the old minstrel shows were. You don't realize it until you see one of your own ethnic groups done in the same manner -- exactly the same. In this case what struck me was a caricature of the New York Jewish lawyer. They utilized all the stereotypes of "Jews" just as offensively as the old minstrel shows demean African-Americans.

Back when doing the training for the Race Exhibit that has been here in Rochester since May, we were challenged to look at the use of native portrayals in school mascots -- you know Indians, Redskins, etc. One of the questions that we were asked in the discussion at that time was, "How do you think people would respond if instead of Indians they used caricatures of Jews or Germans or any other white European ethnic group?" The answer in our discussion was clearly that the response would be anything but accepting.

But there it was on stage at the Guthrie Theater showing us whites how hideous and violent it was. Talk about a challenge. At the end the audience gave an immediate, spontaneous, long standing ovation. It was well-earned and well-deserved. I will be very surprised if this is not nominated for a Tony Award next year.

Watch for it!

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