Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Controversial ‘Scottsboro Boys’ At Old Globe

Above: "The Scottsboro Boys" gets its West Coast premiere at The Old Globe Theatre April 29th - June 10th.

"The Scottsboro Boys" may be the most controversial musical you'll see in San Diego all year.

The story of the Scottsboro boys is unlikely material for a musical: Nine African American boys falsely convicted of rape and sentenced to die in 1930s Alabama. A series of trials, convictions, reversals and retrials followed, spanning two decades (see sidebar for the history).

Not exactly the stuff of song and dance.

Not only did this painful chapter in history become a musical, it became a minstrel show. The implausibility mounts.

“The Scottsboro Boys” had a short run on Broadway in 2010. It divided audiences and critics, and received 12 Tony nominations (setting a record for most nominations, and zero wins). The Old Globe's production will be its West Coast premiere.

John Kander composed the score for “The Scottsboro Boys” with the late lyricist Fred Ebb. Kander and Ebb are legendary names on Broadway. They wrote the scores for a long list of hits, including “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

While researching the history of the Scottsboro boys, Kander came across an article from the 1930s calling one of the trials a “minstrel show” because of all the courtroom shenanigans underway. Kander, by phone from New York, says a light bulb went off.

“What we were trying to do was bring these guys back to life and make it clear that they were real people with real lives, which were destroyed by the terrible racial injustice in this country," Kander said. "The form of the minstrel show with its black face and cliché fit right into that.”

History of the Scottsboro Boys

On March 25th, 1931, nine black teenagers were “hoboing” or riding the Southern Railroad freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis, a common pastime in Depression era. The boys didn’t know each other. The train stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama and the young men were pulled off the train and accused of raping two white girls also riding the rails. The young girls were initially pulled off the boxcar by police and were going to be charged when they decided to distract the officers with the fabricated story of rape.

The nine boys – ages 13 to 19 - were jailed in Scottsboro. A crowd of several hundred surrounded the Scottsboro jail the night of their arrest, with the intention of lynching the young men. Their plans changed when Alabama's governor ordered the National Guard to Scottsboro to protect the suspects.

A series of trials followed. They were marked by incompetent defense, all-white juries, mistrials and retrials. The young men were repeatedly sentenced to death.

In one dramatic trial, one of the alleged victims admitted to lying about the rape, but the convictions of the young men were still upheld.

Either through paroles or escapes, all of the Scottsboro Boys eventually went free, after two decades of imprisonment and trials. For the intervening history of legal challenges and miscarriages of justice, go here.

The Popularity of Minstrel Shows

For almost a century, minstrels were the most popular form of entertainment in America. They were written and performed by white men in black face and they relied on exaggerated stereotypes of blacks. Jim Crow was one of the most popular minstrel characters.

“Jim Crow was also called the darkie figure,” says Camille Forbes, a professor of ethnic studies at UCSD. “He was unintelligent, he was comically slow-thinking, slow moving, and lazy. And this became a central image that circulated.”

Minstrels featured catchy music and dancing. Jokes were woven throughout the show. This was before film, television and even radio, so traveling minstrel shows drew large crowds seeking entertainment. For some audiences, minstrels were the only exposure they had to black culture – which of course wasn’t black culture, but a racist (and sometimes violent) parody of it.

The Controversy

At this point, you’re likely wondering why the tragic story of the Scottsboro boys is being told as a minstrel show.

David Thompson wrote the book (story and dialogue) for “The Scottsboro Boys.” He says the minstrel form offered “dramatic tension in the storytelling.” He adds, “it’s a very racist form of entertainment and we’re telling a story that has racism at its core.”

When Sara Clarke Kaplan first heard about “The Scottsboro Boys” she was both intrigued and terrified. The assistant professor of ethnic and gender studies at UCSD was intrigued because the story of the Scottsboro boys is one that risks being treated as "a kind of maudlin version of 21st century white guilt.” The minstrel format could be used effectively to refute that tendency, Clarke Kaplan says.

But there was also the terror. “I became very worried that it would draw upon the kind of humor and showmanship of minstrelsy and really end up reinforcing precisely the kinds of racist stereotypes and images the minstrel show relies upon.”

Nadine George-Graves, a theater professor at UCSD, purposely did not go see “The Scottsboro Boys” when she was in New York, though she says now that it’s in her own backyard she’ll see it. George-Graves says the minstrel show is a dangerous art form.

“The starkest most recent example is Trayvon Martin. I’ll make the argument that he was killed because of the minstrel show. He was killed because of stereotyping. He was killed because he wore a hoodie. And that kind of imaging and stereotyping we trace back to the minstrel show.”

The cast of “The Scottosboro Boys” is mostly black. But the principal creators – director, producers, writers, and composer - are all white, a fact that’s also drawn criticism.

Deconstructing the Form

The members of the creative team interviewed for this story say the musical takes this American “art form” and turns it on its head.

At the beginning of the musical, the nine teenage boys are asked to willingly participate in the minstrel show to tell their story. But by the end, David Thompson says, they not only refuse to participate in the minstrel form, “they’ve completely deconstructed it.” “And it’s an empowering form. They are empowered by the fact that they now take that form and are no longer participating in it anymore,” adds Thompson.

Thompson says an example of this is when the young men are asked to perform a song by the interlocutor (the white emcee in minstrel shows). The song is called “Southern Days”; it’s a Stephen Foster-esque ode to the South, sung in harmony.

As they sing, the boys begin to change the words to tell their version of the South.

Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:

All the sights and sounds come back to me, like my daddy hanging from a tree. Interlocutor: Hey now, wait a minute.

Thompson says it’s a subtle moment, but one he likes. “It lets the audience in on the fact that the boys really are now in charge of their own storytelling.”

Sparking Conversation

“Scottsboro Boys” director Susan Stroman says audiences often leave musical theater, go to dinner and forget what they saw. She says this musical is different.

“I think people will have a conversation about it - about how they felt about it, about race, about their own history.” She adds, “And for creators, that’s really everything isn’t it? To have a conversation after the show.”

But Sara Clarke Kaplan wonders why it takes reenacting a racist form of entertainment to get people talking.

“What does it mean for somebody to sit in the audience and squirm for two hours watching a racist depiction of blackness to get non-black people to recognize that race is still an issue – one they should be talking about it at their dining room table?”

"The Scottsboro Boys" opens on April 29th and runs through June 10th.

The Old Globe will host a series of panels and discussions related to "The Scottsboro Boys."

Some related links:

The Tavis Smiley Show discusses the legacy of blackface.

During my interviews, the following books/movies were mentioned:

"Love and Theft: The Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class" by Eric Lott

"Bamboozled" a film by Spike Lee.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.