Scottsboro: Where Boys Will Be Good Ole Boys

“Scottsboro Boys” at the SpeakEasy Theatre: a Review

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

 

There is a tipping point moment about an hour into the SpeakEasy Stage Company’s sparkling and disturbing vaudeville-style musical, “The Scottsboro Boys”.

 

Wade Wright, attorney for the Prosecution, gives his summation at the second trial of the Scottsboro Nine, as the nine African-American boys and men falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train in 1931 became known. Their accuser has just recanted her entire testimony in open court. Samuel Leibowitz, a white Jewish New York criminal lawyer, is their defense attorney.

 

Wright decides to tap into another form of bigotry to win his now baseless case. “Is justice in this case going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?” he sings to the all white jury in a song based on actual court transcripts.

 

The white jurors find the nine guilty and it takes two decades of re-trials and appeals (including two to the U.S. Supreme Court which resulted in landmark civil rights rulings) to reverse that injustice. Those cases exposed the dark underbelly of this nation’s racism and the continuing challenge of reeling in the deep South and its ingrained ways, even half a century after the end of the Civil War.

 

Most songwriters wouldn’t look to Jim Crow-era Alabama and this shocking incident for the subject matter of a musical. But John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, whose resume includes the prickly blockbusters “Cabaret”, “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and “Chicago”, have never looked to the usual suspects for inspiration. They have relished the edgy and subversive, and the opportunity to expose one of American history’s most shameful episodes of racial injustice was just their cup of tea.

 

Creating an entertaining show from such weighty raw material was a challenge. In an unconventional and daring move, they decided to tell the story of the Scottsboro Boys as a play within a play. The audience is to pretend they are attending an old-time minstrel show. The subject of that show is the Scottsboro nine.

 

The conceit miraculously works. The play’s characters appear as Stepin Fetchit archetypes, cartoonish characters that are arm’s length enough to give the audience moral breathing room to laugh at the blustering sheriffs, duplicitous damsels and singing and dancing inmates. Simultaneously, discomfort hits, and the same audience cringes at the racist caricatures and demeaning blackface meant to debase blacks and sentimentalize slavery. It takes a little while, but eventually the message sinks in: the same people who made black anguish and white injustice the heart and soul of America’s most popular form of entertainment also created a world with the kind of unwritten law that the Scottsboro jury upheld.

 

shout

Members of “The Scottsboro Boys” cast in “Shout”.

 

At slightly under two intermission-less hours, the production showcases a zesty score of dark, barbed lyrics and ragtime-infused music. The opening number, “Hey, Hey, Hey”, introduces us to the characters and acts as a primer about how minstrel shows work (which is a good thing, since most 21st century theatergoers are unfamiliar with the 150-year-old format). The audience is told to expect song, dance and comic sketches, and that’s exactly what they get, complete with tambourines and white-gloved open palmed hand flapping. The musical numbers pay homage to Dixie Depression-era style with a perfect blend of reeds, trombone, guitar and drums. Somewhere, Al Jolson’s spirit is smiling.

 

Director Paul Daigneault and choreographer Ilyse Robbins make the most of the compact stage, using the aisles and minimal set to creative advantage. Several numbers (especially “Electric Chair” and “Make Friends with the Truth”) are real showstoppers and Isaiah Reynolds is nothing short of flawless as Ruby Bates in “Never Too Late”.

 

tambo-bones

Brandon G. Green (left) and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Tambo and Bones.

 

While mostly faithful to the minstrel form, “The Scottsboro Boys” departs from it in ways significant to the storytelling. The recognizable stock minstrel characters of Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (usually white men in black face playing black stereotypes) are black men playing cartoonish racist white law enforcement officers and lawyers. Most importantly, the Scottsboro nine are never reduced to shtick or buffoonery. Their story is serious and their words are honest, raising the specter of lynching, fear and despair.

 

While each of the Scottsboro boys has his story and chance to shine, it is Haywood Patterson (played with grace and authority by De’lon Grant) who is the moral center of the show. He refuses to tell a lie, even when his false admission to a crime could mean his freedom. His part (and Grant’s delivery) is the show’s most lifelike, his dilemma the most universal. “Everyone believes me when I’m telling a lie, but nobody believes me when I’m telling the truth,” he laments.

shadow-play

De’Lon Grant in “Shadow Play”.

 

Despite a catchy score that combines jazz, gospel and vaudeville and entertaining musical numbers that mix the comic and the monstrous, the show manages to make its critical and timely point. “You’re guilty because of the way you look,” a character is told, and the murmur in the audience brought to mind contemporary refrains of “Build A Wall!” “Black Lives Matter” and “Bad Hombre”. Perhaps things haven’t changed as much since the 1930’s as we would like to think they have.

 

The Scottsboro Boys is presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company through November 26 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavillion, Boston Center for the Arts at 527 Tremont Street. For more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.

Advertisements

For Salem Haunted Happenings, the carnival returns to Derby Street

By Shelley A. Sackett, correspondent

Haunted Happenings, the annual month-long festival that crowns Salem the world capital of all things Halloween, will kick off its third weekend with the beloved Fiesta Shows Carnival on Derby Street. Famed for having the most thrilling Midway, Fiesta Shows owns and operates over 100 amusement rides ranging in excitement from the most popular Kiddie rides to the ultimate thrill seekers.

The Carnival runs from 1:00 p.m. (12 noon on Sunday) until 10:00 p.m. on weekends and from 3:00 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays from Friday, October 14 through Monday, October 31.

“There is something special happening every weekend,” said Kate Fox, Executive Director of Destination Salem, the city’s Office of Tourism & Cultural Affairs. Salem Haunted Happenings typically draws over 250,000 visitors to Salem during October.

In addition to the outdoor fun and frolic of the Carnival, there are plenty of opportunities for lovers of theater, film, séances, tours and much more.

CinemaSalem at Museum Place Mall screens the terrific “The History of Halloween”, a short film shot in 3D that will entertain any age, and “The True 1692”, a 3D film that tells the story of the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692. (Visit CinemaSalem.com for the full schedule).

For a more up close and personal 1692 experience, History Alive, Inc. presents the 25th season of “Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop” at Old Town Hall at 32 Derby Square. The live, interactive event allows participants to play the part of the Puritan jury, hearing testimony, cross examining witnesses and deciding the outcome of the famous witchcraft trial. (Visit CryInnocentSalem.com for more information).

If dinner and theater is your treat of choice, then head to the Hawthorne Hotel on Friday, October 14 or Finz on Saturday, October 15 at 7:00 p.m. for “Ghostbusted!”, the family friendly whodunit where the actors perform tableside and diners help solve the mystery while enjoying a buffet dinner. (For more information and to make reservations, go to HauntedDinnerTheater.com ).

If magic is more your cup of tea, then head to St. Peter’s Church at 24 St. Peter Street for the Salem Haunted Magic Show, a live 75-minute show filled with a unique blend of inconceivable stunts, bizarre demonstrations, dark comedy and — of course — audience participation. (Visit TheSalemMagicShow.com for more information).

If your Halloween experience isn’t complete without a séance (or two), then Festival of the Dead’s authentic nightly séances at The Omen at 184 Essex Street should fit the bill. For a complete listing of all events, including the Official Witches’ Ball and the Annual Psychic Fair and Witches’ Expo, visit festivalofthedead.com.

New to Haunted Happenings this year, The Salem Waterfront Hotel at 225 Derby Street will host Chowderfest, a Breast Cancer Benefit, on Saturday, October 15 from 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. For a $10 “spoon fee”, visitors can sample chowder from restaurants in the North Shore and vote for the Best Chowder. All proceeds will be donated to NSMC/MassGeneral/NS Cancer Services.

Trolley tours and harbor boat cruises let revelers enjoy more of Salem by land and by sea. For landlubbers, Salem Trolley offers two options: a one-hour narrated historical tours, and “Tales & Tombstones” a special evening tour that visits scenes of Salem’s haunted past and forgotten secrets. (For reservations, visit SalemTrolley.com ). Gallows Hill’s “Ghosts & Legends Trolley” is a sinister and comical guided look at Salem’s history. (For more information, visit GallowsHillSalem.com )

Mahi Mahi Cruises has three tours to choose from: a “Haunted Happenings” tour, complete with face painting and Tarot card readings; a 90-minute lighthouse and foliage cruise; and a 21+ “Halloween Boo!s Cruise” with DJ, costumes, prizes and — of course — booze. For more details, visit MahiCruises.com.

If it seems like an impossible task to keep all the schedules and events straight, you’re in luck. Destination Salem has published “The Guide to Salem Haunted Happenings”, the zombie-themed essential handbook for getting the most out of Haunted Happenings. It includes calendars, articles, Haunted Happenings “Dos and Don’ts” and information about Salem’s tours, attractions, entertainment, parking and transportation. The guide is available at the National Park Service Salem Visitors Center at 2 New Liberty St. or at hauntedhappenings.org/.

Justice Is Not Denied in “Denial”

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

When historian Deborah E. Lipstadt walked onto the stage on September 22 for a Q&A after a preview of the film “Denial”, she was asked what it felt like to be portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz. “It was surreal,” she said with a laugh, noting that the most remarkable part was hearing her own Queens accent perfectly mimed by the English film and theater star.

 

But with that, any light-heartedness faded as discussion turned to her real life role as defendant in a British lawsuit brought by Hitler admirer and “historian” David Irving. After Lipstadt labeled him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, claiming her false statements had harmed his reputation.

 

Her subsequent ten-week legal battle in 2000 to defend herself and establish the “historical truth” that the Holocaust did indeed occur formed the basis of her “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” (2005), the book on which playwright David Hare’s script for “Denial” is based.

 

denial2

Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in the true story, “Denial”.

 

As Irving knew, in Britain libel laws favor the plaintiff. The defendant must prove that statements the plaintiff considered libelous, or false, are indeed true. In this case, Lipstadt had to prove that the Holocaust really happened, and that, therefore, Irving intentionally lied when he insisted there were never any gas chambers at Auschwitz and that the Nazis had never murdered any Jews.

 

As if this isn’t complicated (and heart wrenching) enough, Lipstadt and her team had two additional stumbling blocks. The first was a lack of physical evidence. The team had to amass their case despite the facts that the Nazis never allowed photographs of prisoners being gassed in Auschwitz and further covered their tracks by destroying the gas chambers.

 

The second was defense counsel’s decision not to allow Lipstadt or any Holocaust survivors to testify for fear that Irving, who was acting as his own attorney, would humiliate and exploit them. For Lipstadt, this was worse.

 

“A trial is not therapy,” Lipstadt’s British solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott, known to TV’s “Sherlock” fans as Moriarty), tells her. Furious, she tries to make him understand that it is not their own catharsis the survivors seek. “You think they want to testify for themselves? It’s not for themselves. They want to give voice to the ones who didn’t make it.” Unmoved, Julius replies, “It’s the price you pay for winning.”

 

The bulk of the film centers on the trial and all the testimony comes directly from the actual trial transcripts. “This was a film about truth and it had to be truthful,” Lipstadt said during the Q&A. Although some of the film’s detailed court procedures may be confusing (and boring to a non-attorney), the exchanges between Irving (Timothy Spall) and the defense’s Scottish barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) crackle, due in large part to the stellar acting of both.

 

Spall, who recently starred in “Mr. Turner”, has a rubber face perfectly suited to playing the duplicitous and self-impressed Irving. One minute, he is all smarmy self-justification, buttering up the judge and showboating for the spectators. The next, he is at his most infuriating, spewing diabolical anti-Semitic racist invectives and then playing the victim, accusing Lipstadt of tarnishing his reputation with a “verbal yellow star”.

 

The always-terrific Wilkinson brings weight and nuance to a cool-headed performance that hints at the roiling emotion lurking just below the surface. The film’s most satisfying moments are when his Rampton slyly lures Irving in during cross examination, then ferociously pounces, drawing and quartering his squirming prey.

 

Its most moving scene is during the legal team’s visit to Auschwitz. When Rampton steps on a barbed wire shard on his way to the gas chamber entrance, he suddenly understands the enormity of the atrocity perpetrated by the Nazis. To imagine a barefooted Jew stepping on a piece of barbed wire on his way to his imminent murder is unspeakably unjust — and real.

 

Given the extraordinary pre-release press “Denial” has engendered, it can hardly be a spoiler to reveal that Lipstadt won her case. The Holocaust scholar, however, hopes the biggest takeaway of the film is not her victory, but a recognition that not all opinions merit defending.

 

“There are not two sides to every story. The Holocaust happened. Slavery happened. There are some things you cannot debate,” she said. “I will debate you on the facts. I will not debate liars.”

 

Noting that earlier in the day, the New York Time used “lie” to describe some of the things Donald Trump has said, Lipstadt is worried about what lies ahead. “We are living in a time when lying has become mainstream. The needle has moved so far,” she said. “There is an anti-intellectual, anti-factual attitude which is frightening.”

 

She paused for a moment and then directed the Q&A session towards the audience. “Where does that put us? As academics and people interested in social justice, what do we do?” she asked.

 

Here come Haunted Happenings

 

Salem Haunted Happenings, the annual month-long festival of all things Halloween, typically draws over 250,000 visitors to Salem during October. The 2016 schedule has something for everyone, from artsy street fairs to an a cappella competition to free family Saturday night films.

 
 

Reignited partnership between SSU and Salem public schools a win-win for both

 

 

In 1854, when Salem Normal School welcomed its first class of women who wanted to prepare for a teaching career, the city of Salem embraced the new school, endowing its One Broad Street location. Over the decades, the city and school developed a relationship that was mutually beneficial, but that waxed and waned.

 

That close historical partnership is entering a new phase with the recent signing of a memorandum of agreement between Salem State University (Salem Normal School’s heir) and Salem Public Schools (SPS).

 

Mayor Kim Driscoll is pleased that SSU will expand their connection with SPS through their Graduate School of Education and their commitment to the Horace Mann Laboratory School especially. “There is no more important mission for our city than ensuring that all our children receive a first class education that provides them with an opportunity to succeed,” she said.

 

One of the major sources of excitement for both SPS Superintendent Margarita Ruiz and SSU Dean of the School of Education, Dr. Joseph Cambone, is the return of the Horace Mann Laboratory School to its original purpose as a true “training school” for SSU students. “Some of our faculty longed to get back to collaborating with Salem Public Schools,” Dr. Cambone said during a phone interview.

Horace Mann Laboratory School was founded in 1896 and is now located at 33 Loring Avenue. Its 265 K-5 students and 26 teachers have traditionally drawn on the comprehensive resources of Salem State University.

 

When Superintendent Ruiz stepped in as superintendent in 2015, however, that liaison with the SSU School of Education was at an all time low. After the Horace Mann principal resigned soon after Superintendent Ruiz’s arrival, Dr. Cambone had a proposal for her and School Committee Chair, Mayor Kim Driscoll: What if a “very qualified” SSU faculty member served as interim principal for a year so Dr. Ruiz could have the time to think through where she wanted to go next with Horace Mann?

 

Superintendent Ruiz and Mayor Driscoll agreed, and SSU faculty member Chad Leith, EdD, was appointed interim principal for 2015-2016. “That was the genesis of our reigniting what has been in the past a close relationship but that had, over the years, become less strong,” Dr. Cambone said.

 

Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz wanted to use this turning point as an opportunity to explore the mutually beneficial ways SPS and the SSU School of Education could strengthen their ties and craft a formal agreement to memorialize that bond. To that end, they asked Leith to help convene a “blueprint committee” to rethink the SSU/SPS relationship and to consider ways in which the historic partnership between the two institutions could be better leveraged to enhance the learning experiences of Horace Mann students and aspiring teachers from SSU.

 

The blueprint committee included SSU faculty, an undergraduate education student, Horace Mann faculty, and a Horace Mann parent, and came up with five categories of activities to address.

 

Among those activities is collaboration between SSU and Horace Mann faculty around “curriculum enhancement”, meaning how teachers actually teach their subject matter. “Each year, whatever the core focus of Horace Mann is for their professional development and curriculum, we’ll work on our (SSU) side with some of our experts to assist,” Dr. Cambone said. This year, the core focus at Horace Mann is science.

 

Thanks to a 3-year grant, the SSU School of Education faculty and students and the Horace Mann community are also collaborating on “youth development”, including vacation, after school and summer programming. Winter and spring break “vacation academies” are under discussion.

As part of their curriculum, SSU students observe and student teach in classrooms while they do coursework to become early child educators. Returning Horace Mann to true “laboratory” status boosts the opportunities for students with interests in English language learners and kids with special needs to gain that targeted experience.

 

“Central to everything is our educator development,” Dr. Cambone said, adding that SSU students may go to Horace Mann to student teach and then return to their SSU classroom for faculty critique. “There is a back and forth between SSU and Horace Mann.”

 

Following his 2015-2016 year as interim principal, Leith was selected as principal of Horace Mann after submitting to a process that involved input from Superintendent Ruiz and the community. Once selected, that SSU faculty member steps off the faculty and into the role of principal for just under a three-year term, renewable one time. Leith is still an SSU employee, but reports first to Superintendent Ruiz and then to Dr. Cambone.

 

Leith’s expertise in English language learners (ELL) and inclusion classrooms, and his experience as a bilingual educator dovetail well with the needs of Horace Mann’s diverse student body, many of whom are newcomers who speak little or no English.

 

“Our students and families represent the full spectrum of the larger Salem community. We want to be sure we are continually looking for new ways of supporting and challenging our learners academically so that all students are moving forward, regardless of their particular needs,” he said.

 

The “blueprint committee” also suggested that Horace Mann support community outreach. To that end, a bilingual human resource specialist was hired to spearhead more Horace Mann community school efforts and to work on banding together with parents, the after school programs, service programs and other resources within the city.

 

“Another goal for the current year is to strengthen our approach to family and community engagement. I’m proud to say that we have a lot of happy children and families, but I know we can do better,” Leith said.

 

Both Dr. Cambone and Superintendent Ruiz point to the broader implications for the entire district of the revitalized Horace Mann/Salem Public Schools connection. “As students do their practicums at Horace Mann, they’ll get excited and think about working for us here at Salem. That’s what we want to be able to do,” Superintendent said.

 

“We are really strengthening the pipeline for our graduates training in Salem and then coming back to Salem to work. This is one of the benefits for the larger district,” Dr. Cambone said. “With Mayor Driscoll’s, SSU President Meservey’s and Superintendent Ruiz’s help, the stars are aligned for us to say, ‘Hey. This is a great way for us to get back to what we believe in.”