Today was the only time I have ever had to cross a protest line to see a musical. As I approached the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street for today’s matinée of The Scottsboro Boys, I could see the shapes of banners, and I could hear a chant emerge from the noise around Times Square:
Scottsboro Boys is no minstrel show!
Shut ’em down! They got to go!
Most Americans are not familiar with the Scottsboro Boys anymore. That in itself is a good reason to write a piece of art about them. Most Americans are also not familiar with art anymore, either, though, which is these protestors’ reason to protest.
Although I’ve never had to break a picket line to see a musical, I’ve also never seen the area in front of the theatre so empty before showtime. A line of police between the shouting protestors and the entering audience kept the area clear, and once inside, most of the patrons hastily took their seats, not wishing to engage in a potential fray. Something about the moral challenge of a protest line can instill a sense of quiet shame in whomever is on the other side, even if they have nothing to be ashamed of.
I was one of the few theatregoers who asked for a leaflet from the protestors, who identified themselves as being associated with something called the Freedom Party (tellingly, the name of the group was written much more prominently on signs than the substance of its complaint about the show). As soon as I read it, I knew these people didn’t understand what was actually happening inside this theatre.
The musical authors of The Scottsboro Boys are songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb crafted a career out of writing about issues of injustice and personal freedom, including Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Chicago (1975), Cabaret (1966), and Flora, the Red Menace (1965). Both writers were children of the early 20th century but their work possesses modern sensibilities, so (generally speaking) it uses vaudeville or burlesque styles as a counterpoint to modern themes. That’s how Roxie and Velma can winkingly wrap up Chicago for us by singing ‘”in 20 years or so/ it’s gonna change you know” and how Cabaret‘s satanic Emcee, a stand-in for rising Nazism, insidiously mocks the blithe characters around him simply by singing a song that appears to be, on the surface, cheerful and depraved.
It’s called a “concept musical.” Kander and Ebb’s work uses the jolly tunefulness of American musical traditions as a weapon against the lies with which America, and humanity in general, flatter themselves. In The Scottsboro Boys, which retells the true story of nine young black men falsely convicted of rape in 1930s Alabama, they (with bookwriter David Thompson) have taken for their language that most poisonous, all-American musical form: the minstrel show.
Artistic patriots cherish the all-American genres of jazz and musical theatre, but minstrelsy is America’s forgotten grand tradition. Blackface was once dominant in our culture, but we are now too ashamed to so much as hint at it. In it, singers (both black and white) alike portrayed African-Americans and simple-minded, lazy, fun-loving, watermelon-eatin’, chicken-pickin’ — and adorably inferior. Considering that the imprisonment of the real-life Scottsboro Boys depended on exactly such toxic assumptions about them, minstrel songs are an apt idiom for the tale.
Even the title is apropos. “The Scottsboro Boys” is not the patronizing name Kander and Ebb have given these men, although the diminutive nickname instantly indicates the show is about the dehumanization of racism. It’s the actual patronizing name given to these men in the ’30s by do-good liberals who took up their cause (and later dropped it, when they tired of it) in the North. In the South, all black men were called “boy.” White men, of course, were “sir.”
“You’re not allowed to write about that”
Would the Freedom Party complain that Cabaret is about Nazism, or do they object to the show’s pointedly anti-Semitic number? No, and the protest against The Scottsboro Boys clearly seeks to divide along racial lines. The flyer reads, “white producers, writers, directors, and the media are attempting to turn Black people’s [sic] suffering from racial terrorism into a mockery. They think by hiring a Black case they can cover up their insults by claiming “Blacks work here.” YOU CAN’T – the plantation is the plantation.” To these people, art is exploitative if it’s about something that happened to someone else.
“When is Racist Terrorism Musical Entertainment?” asks the flyer, under photos of the real Scottsboro Boys and a horrifying Xeroxed copy of a real-life lynching. “Where is the Song and Dance Musical about Gas Chambers, World Trade Center or Japanese Internment Camps?”
It’s funny they ask that. There have already been World Trade Center musicals. A college classmate of mine, Elizabeth Lucas, recently directed Clear Blue Tuesday, a film musical written about the emotional response to 9/11. Although the songs were penned by people with direct connection to the tragedy, Lucas and her film were assailed by people ignorant of the film’s true content in the comments section of an article in The New York Times‘ blog. Most of the objections seemed to rise from the pithy thumbnail description movie musical about 9/11 than what the movie actually was: artistic expression about what happened to us then. Many more asserted that Lucas had no right to write art about 9/11 if she hadn’t personally been at Ground Zero that day.
The protestors don’t recognize that although they want everyone to honor the black experience, they won’t let any person talk about it unless they themselves went through it.
Just as minstrel acts tell us far more about the self-identity of the performer than of the people being mocked, protests like these tell us more about the shoddy state of the protestor’s worldview and prejudice than about the target.
Above nearly everything else, Americans excel at claiming they stand for one thing when, in fact, they stand for nearly the opposite. That’s what the Scottsboro Boys found in the supposedly free country of their birth, and that’s what the Freedom Party teaches when it is quite plainly in favor of anything but freedom, at least as far as art is concerned.
“You can’t do that. Otherwise you’re perfectly free.” They might as well add “boy” to the end of that, such is the sentiment about knowing your place.
The protest also teaches us that perhaps our culture has become over saturated with commercial product that few of us can identify symbolism when we see it. When everything in a society is exploitative, and when everything exists to be sold and to make profit, we lack the critical thinking skills to know when something exists simply so we can process our shared experience better.
Neither Clear Blue Tuesday or The Scottsboro Boys is likely to make fortunes, which helps remove the stigma of exploitation — but even if they were, their authors would still have the perfect right to create them, at least in the America I know, which flatters itself by telling itself it’s free and capitalist.
Back to the old Grind
This sort of protest has happened before. Spike Lee got slammed for commenting on minstrel acts in the daring but flawed Bamboozled (2000), but similar battles have happened in musicals, too, and the battles were usually lost. Kander and Ebb themselves were forced to change a lyric in Cabaret in which a despicable character pointedly compared Jews to gorillas. And in 1985, my friend Larry Grossman, with his lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh, was forced to cut his own brilliant-anti-racism song, “We All George,” from his Broadway musical Grind. The premise of the song, a peppy ditty, was akin to the word “Boys” in the Scottsboro Boys: Since white men think all black men look alike, they need not worry themselves with the real names of their porters and bellboys, and they they can just call them all George.
It was savage, it was ugly, it was of course aware of its own hateful ridiculousness — and it made the cast so nervous they didn’t want to perform it. (Director Harold Prince, who was the one who caved on the Jew line in Cabaret, caved on this one, too. Another do-good liberal accidentally doing the wrong thing, or only willing to go so far with his principles.)
With The Scottsboro Boys, in which characters break into Jim Crow shufflin’ as a way of starkly rebutting their humanity rather than disguising it, “We All George” is now officially a quarter century ahead of its time.
But really, it’s not the line or the song or the show these protesters object to. It’s the racism itself. It’s the mirror. It sucks to admit what we all come from, because we all came out of evil.
This show has been a live wire since its inception, and it took a long time to reach the stage because of it. In fact, lyricist Fred Ebb died six years ago — on a September 11. But in The Scottsboro Boys, I imagine his hand popping out of his grave to lob one hell of a grenade at all the small, hateful minds of the world. (His committed Broadway cast and creative team cleanly pull the pin.) His most obvious targets are the racist and/or insular Americans who still control parts of this country, and the people who assume small lives can’t have large effects.
But in defiantly choosing to use minstrel songs — the old perversion gets further perverted and becomes, almost, a corrective — he’s also thumbing his nose at the small minds on our own doorstep who don’t understand satire, symbolism, or art itself. Evoking minstrels is the ultimate subversion of all-American themes that he, with Kander, was working toward for 40 years. It’s a gut punch, and I love it. I love anything that reminds Americans when they’re lying about something. We lie about so much.
My performance, which I noticed was far more integrated than most Broadway musicals I’ve attended, had the audience hooked, eliciting more gasps and sighs than you hear at most matinées. It got a standing ovation — not unusual these days for any show, sadly — but as I left, I listened for the reaction as people started talking to each other. More than once, I heard voices say they didn’t get what the protestors were complaining about.
The protestors, I also noticed, didn’t have the courage to be in front of the theatre after we came out, disarmed of our ignorance. It’s a good thing, because they would have earned themselves arguments from more than a few people who were devastated by their first exposure to the story of the Scottsboro Boys.
The complaint is the same old song and dance, but in a new costume: People who allow a simplified phrase such as “musical about the Scottsboro Boys” to define the width and breadth of their understanding of the topic. People who think in headlines and bumper stickers and tweets and respond in what they must assume is useful outrage. Prejudice of any kind is repulsive indeed, but like minstrelsy, it says more about the actor than the object.
The protestors are correct about one thing: The Scottsboro Boys certainly ain’t no minstrel show. But thanks for the publicity, sirs.
Update: I read a little more about the show since writing this, and I learned that after Ebb died, John Kander finished the project by uncharacteristically writing a portion of the lyrics himself. I have to give him more credit. I’m also not satisfied with the credit I didn’t give to director Susan Stroman, whose flourishes (Haywood’s coon song affectations in “Nothin'”, the fierce group bum rush and roar at the climax of “The Scottsboro Boys” song) immeasurably enrich the show with razor-sharp double meanings. Their contributions make the intentions of the whole searingly clear. Simply listening to the cast album, which spotlights the songs divorced from their talents, proved that to me.
[I think I have a way of exploding with thoughts after seeing important Broadway musicals. I wrote this post (click here) in 90 frenzied minutes after seeing Lincoln Center’s marvelous South Pacific revival.]