I’ve been thinking a lot about THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, a new Kander and Ebb (composer and lyricist of CABARET, KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN and CHICAGO, among others) musical that is closing on Broadway today. The Internet is rife with articles about the questions surrounding the show. (Google “Scottsboro Boys Musical Racist” for more.) In addition to the question of whether or not the show is racist, there’s also the question of whether or not the show is even a good musical, here are the reviews (not to say that I believe reviews always indicate quality…)
I missed the show off-Broadway at the Vineyard last Spring, but I’d heard good things about it from people I trust, so I was really excited to have the opportunity to see it a few weeks ago on Broadway. I strongly support attempts by musicals to tackle America’s racist legacy, and I am very interested in how White authors can write about these issues in a way that isn’t racist, but rather deals with the way racism impacts (and I would argue hurts, although obviously to varying degrees) all members of society, whether or not the privileged parties recognize it.
I found THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS to be quite successful actually. I thought that the minstrel form was deconstructed, rather than mimicked. I thought connection between the legacy of minstrelsy and the history of this type of injustice in the judicial system was a smart linking, and that it brings up the fact that popular culture does impact social behavior. I thought the actors and other creative talent behind the show effectively made it clear that the show calls minstrelsy into question, rather than uses that form for entertainment.
However, I also understand the argument that given the continued presence of racism in our society any presentation of problematic images is… problematic, even if the point of the presentation is criticism. Especially when the authors are trying to say one thing, but the audience response indicates the message isn’t exactly coming through. This article on New America Media remarks that the reporter from the Amsterdam News was troubled by some of the things the audience laughed at. I also experienced this when I saw the show. There were things that I didn’t think were supposed to be funny that got big laughs, and it was very disturbing the way John Cullum was applauded on his entrance given the context (he is the only White actor and he enters clearly as the leader of the minstrel show.)
There’s also the argument that minstrelsy is a fundamental part of the history of American musical theater, as disturbing as that is. And, so, in order to overcome the past we must remember and interrogate it, and part of that interrogation may be staging a “minstrel” show like THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS in order to understand why it was such a popular art form and why it was such a dangerous one. I do think we ought to consider that THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS does put forward a lot of very disturbing images, and it does use blackface, BUT it does not put White people in blackface on stage. And, the only use of blackface in the show is very, very pointed as a moment of deconstruction and rebellion. The actors in the minstrel show turn against the accepted narrative and wipe the blackface off and leave, they have blackface on SO that they may wipe it off in defiance.
The question of authorship also comes into play here. John Kander, Fred Ebb, David Thompson and Susan Stroman are all White. When Spike Lee uses blackface in the movie Bamboozled, it’s clear that that’s an act of critique. I understand why the power dynamics make that less of a given with THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, but I think Kander and Ebb deserve the trust of their audiences in dealing with sensitive issues. It’s very clear to me, as a student of musical theater, how THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is a direct descendent of shows like CABARET and CHICAGO which use a hyper-performative format to explore serious social issues. The concept behind using minstrelsy for this show in a Kander and Ebb context makes sense to me, and I think they do it well. But, I’m also White.
And this is what leads to my desire for discussion on the matter, because I as a White writer who wants to write musicals that deconstruct American racism and Whiteness had a lot of respect for this show. But, there were a lot of people of color actively protesting the show. The Freedom Party had demonstrations outside of the show, and aimed to have it closed. Which it has, though it seems likely that that has to do with Broadway economics more than anything else. And, it’s easy for me to dismiss the protestors, because many of them haven’t seen the show and I agree with what Colman Domingo says in the previously mentioned New America article. But, I also, in general, feel like I need to check my position if I find myself disagreeing with a large group of people of color on an issue of racism.
So, in regards to THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS I pose the following question for discussion:
Is it ever okay to do a minstrel show, even when the goal is critique like in the case of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS?
And, as a bonus question, why was The Freedom Party picketing THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS while no one was picketing BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON (which is also closing, without the aid of protestors), which I felt had a lot of racist Native American imagery? I would argue this is a testament to the continued invisibility of and racism towards Native American people, which is part of what I find so difficult about the “jokes” made with a knowing smile in BLOODY, BLOODY – but more on that later.
*If you're wondering what a minstrel show is, don't worry. There's plenty to be found on Google. But, in brief, they are one of the predecessors to modern musical theater in the U.S. A very prevalent form of popular culture from the 1840s through the beginning of the 20th Century, that didn't really die out until the 1950s or 60s. A LOT of common cultural stereotypes about and offensive representations of Black people in the U.S. come from minstrel shows, which many people don't even realize. For example, the characters of "Jim Crow", "Sambo" and "Aunt Jemima". In mind, the most important thing about them is the way they helped institutionalize racist ideas through popular culture - only proving my deepest held belief (albeit towards the opposite end that I would desire): musical theater impacts the way people think about the world around them.