In 1931 nine African American teenagers were wrongly accused of raping two white women while aboard a freight train in Alabama. Worried they might get imprisoned for prostitution while traveling aboard the same train, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates quickly cried rape, diverting the attention rather to the handful of innocent boys. These nine boys became known as The Scottsboro Boys, growing more and more infamy as their many trials became public interest throughout the nation. Fighting through Southern angry mobs, an all-white jury and a trial that was hastened, the nine boys were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. As word spread of the prejudice demonstrated, Northerners eventually stepped in to see that such a miscarriage of justice be overturned, but that was just the beginning of a process clouded by an ugly and unjust preconception. The uphill fight was long and grueling and successes were slow in the making. The story, superbly performed by Porchlight Music Theatre, is remarkable, sad and hopeful.
Written by David Thompson and directed by Samuel G. Roberson, “The Scottsboro Boys” is a controversial musical, now making its debut in Chicago after Broadway and London runs, and is the last featuring the music and lyrics of John Kander and Fred Ebb, mostly known for their triumphant smash hits “Chicago” and “Cabaret”. The story, a compelling and emotional ride through the racist South is a painful lesson of our nation’s dark history and serves as a stark reminder that change for a better world must never be ignored as we move forward as a unified people.
Throughout the musical’s duration, we see an image of a pained Rosa Parks (Cynthia Clarey) who plays witness to the injustices that take place. Though her stand wouldn’t take place until years later, we see the effect such a stirring account would have on approaching generations. Sad as this tragic story as such is, we feel hope for the future by the play’s end and a realization for the work that still needs to be done.
“This is a story that needs to be told,” says Mark J.P. Hood who stars as Mr. Tambo.
The nearly all African American cast delivers several all-around brilliant performances, doling out tremendous vocal harmony efforts, powerful acting and dance numbers that are both inventive and energetic. Currently running at Stage 773, a mid-sized theatre, the only drawback is that it is easy to envision the musical preformed on a larger stage, sometimes routines appearing a bit crowded. Still, that’s a very small drawback, because the play’s director is able to utilize its given space to maximize this Broadway-sized show effectively, moving boxcars and all.
Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood lead this gifted ensemble along with James Earl Jones II with commanding acting performances that would be hard to beat. The Scottsboro Boys is a real showcase for both Tsopnang and Hood, who flex their versatility while taking on a handful of roles. Veteran actor Larry Yondo, most recently known for his spot-on portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol”, also puts forth yet another admirable effort as The Interlocutor. With several beautiful vocal harmonies that sweep the house with robust sentiment, it is perhaps “Go Back Home”, a pivotal number that relates to those longing to find peace passionately led by Jones II, that will truly resonate with theatre goers long after the show. Though the vocal finesse is abundant throughout, fourteen-year-old Cameron Goode and Stephen Allen Jr. somehow find room to dazzle us even more.
As jaw dropping as many of the numbers are in their performance, the audience often finds reluctance in their clapping, the weight of the subject matter almost seemingly inappropriate to applaud. But it is in these performances that the story is told so well. A handful of poignant casting twists take place as the white policemen and the woman accusers are played by African Americans.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is a highly recommended theatre experience, both exceptional in its performance and its ever-important message. Wonderfully staged, acted and sung, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that will invoke much thought, inspire bravery and encourage action to be taken long afterwards.
“The Scottsboro Boys” is being performed at Stage 773 through March 12th. For tickets and/or more show information click here.
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