By Jack Wittels
On a Memphis bound freight train in 1931, nine black teens were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama, accused of raping two white female passengers. Tried in nearby Scottsboro by an all-white jury and without proper legal representation, all were found guilty and – apart from thirteen-year-old Roy Wright – sentenced to death by electrocution.
However, when the US communist party offered the boys legal assistance, it sparked a courtroom battle that would drag on for six years and provoke a series of protests that reached as far afield as Germany, Spain and Russia. Since then, the story of the Scottsboro boys has woven itself into the fabric of American history: a bold challenge to some of the nation’s most deeply held beliefs about race, class, religion, gender and the law.
“Sometimes people question how relevant the Scottsboro boys are today,” says Colman Domingo, one of the stars in the forthcoming Young Vic musical, The Scottsboro Boys. “But it’s actually still extremely relevant…Just look at the Trayvon Martin case in America. Everyone agrees it was an example of racial profiling. A young man was followed and killed simply because he looked a certain way.”
Using an adapted minstrel form to trace the harrowing story of the original nine teenagers, The Scottsboro Boys first appeared on Broadway in 2010, receiving rave reviews and twelve Tony Award nominations. In this latest version, Domingo, who along with co-star Forrest McClendon formed part of the original American cast, is joined by British thespians Julian Glover and Dawn Hope.
As one might expect from Kander and Ebb’s final production (the hit duo’s previous works include Chicago and Cabaret), The Scottsboro Boys promises an “exhilarating, dazzling” performance. Audiences, however, should not be fooled; this show does not hide behind the glitz and glamour of a traditional musical. Complex and weighty issues are tackled head-on, blending light entertainment with thought provoking drama.
“I think the musical form is an exciting way to tell a story that has a bit more depth. Not everything has to be like The Lion King – though I actually think that show is very deep!” says Domingo. “If we just told the Scottsboro story using transcripts…it wouldn’t be palatable. I don’t think a person could sit through even fifteen minutes of what we know really happened to these boys.”
The Scottsboro Boys will be at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, SE1 8LZ, from October 18 to December 21. Admission: £10-35. Phone: 0207 922 2922. http://www.youngvic.org