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.

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‘Casa Valentina’ Is More Than Eye Candy

Above: Eddie Shields as Gloria, Thomas Derrah as Valentina and Robert Saoud as Bessie access their inner McGuire Sisters./ALL PHOTOS GLENN PERRY

By Shelley A. Sackett

Shelleysackett.com

With the gloom of daylight savings time and shorter, darker days looming around the bend, we should say a double “Hosanna” for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s six-week run of “Casa Valentina”, Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play that is about much  more than cross-dressing and visual gags.

“Casa Valentina” is a flawless production, from its across-the-board inspired acting and directing, to its funny and thought-provoking script. Before the house is even dark, the ukulele music and whimsical setting clue us that we are in for an enjoyable ride.

The play was inspired by a mysterious true subculture of heterosexual transvestite men who sought sanctuary in the Catskills during the 1960’s at the real-life hidden refuge, “Casa Susanna”. There, they could literally let their hair down, wearing wigs, heels, makeup and jewelry. A treasure trove of photographs discovered by a furniture dealer in a Manhattan flea market and published in a 2005 book showed the secretive world of men lounging around, playing cards and socializing — all while dressed as women.

A group of producers approached Fierstein, one of America’s first openly gay major celebrities, about writing a play based on the retreat. The author and Tony-award winning actor and playwright of “Kinky Boots”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Torch Song Trilogy” agreed.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d'Eon.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d’Eon.

Janie Howland’s pleasing, rambling set is the 1960s Chevalier d’Eon, a homey Catskills resort of bungalows named after a French transvestite spy. The Chevalier caters to a group of “regulars”, married city-men with straight lives and straight jobs, who convene in the tranquility of the retreat to dress and behave like women. These gatherings are vacations in more ways than one; “Being a boy is my day job,” laments one. The masculine pronoun is banished from conversation, the booze flows freely and the Oscar Wilde quotes are darts that never miss the bull’s eye.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

The wife and husband proprietors, Rita and George (also known as Valentina), are equally devoted to providing a safe place where transvestites have the freedom to explore their feminine sides and enjoy the camaraderie and fun of their soul sisters. Rita, played by Kerry A. Dowling with warmth, substance and a lot of heart, is a wig stylist who met George when he brought his sad, straggly wig into her shop for repair. She loves the “girls” and is almost saintly in her support for her husband. [Thomas Derrah, as Valentina/George, is superb].

Jonathan, a masculine, shy and bookish thirty-something, is a first time guest at the Chevalier; in fact, it is his first time ever dressing as a woman in public. Rita takes him under her maternal wing and his transformation from nervous, cautious Jonathan to ebullient and prom-ready Miranda is heartwarming. It is also a hoot, with wigs, falsies and industrial strength foundations for face and fanny.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda as Will McGarrahan (Charlotte) looks on.

Each guest is unique and yet similar. Bessie, played with sass and verve by Robert Saoud, only appears in drag. She is the Oscar Wilde-spewing quick-witted Ethel Merman wannabe. As Albert, he is a decorated war veteran who has three kids and a wife able to ignore him.

Gloria, played by the breathtakingly beautiful Eddie Shields, is the most sexually charged and self-confident of the bunch, slinking around and miraculously not breaking an ankle in those stilettos. Terry, a frumpy maiden aunt type, couldn’t be more opposite.

But it is Timothy Crowe as Amy, the alter ego of The Judge, a distinguished and politically powerful man, who personifies the inner conflict suffered by those who must live secret lives. Crowe masterfully lets the Judge’s underlying sadness and fear poke its head above the surface of Amy’s wit and conviviality.

Most of the girls have known each other for decades, and their affectionate and easy chatter and jibes are fun and funny. The lip sync to the McGuire Sisters in a makeshift cabaret reminiscent of talent night at summer camp is worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not worry-free in Paradise.

Valentina has been summoned to the local postal inspector to answer for some suspicious mail, which could have dire consequences for all of the girls, but especially for George. The Chevalier is facing equally life-threatening financial problems. Only Rita is aware of these troubles.

Enter into this olio of eccentrics the Californian Charlotte, a Chanel-clad button-down, buttoned-up disciplinarian reminiscent of George C. Scott as Patton. Charlotte publishes a magazine and oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, as long as they’re the “right sort” of cross-dressers; that is, as long as they are not homosexuals. Valentina has naively pinned her hope on securing a loan form Charlotte, but the price she demands proves too steep and threatens to tear the Chevalier apart in a far nastier, bloodier battle than would ever take place in bankruptcy court.

Charlotte’s silver lining is that she is the spark that spurs serious discussion about serious issues. In this age of gender diversity, “Transparent” and the newest reality show, “Caitlyn Jenner”, how one identifies ones self matters both more and less. The lines between gender and identity, sexuality and gender identification, and what is “acceptable” and what is not have never been more blurred. With the explosion in labels comes an explosion in opportunities to marginalize and be marginalized. Perhaps the most powerful message “Casa Valentina” offers is that the discriminated against can themselves be the heartless discriminators.

“Casa Valentina” is a romp and a good time, but it much more than that. It shines an unblinking spotlight on the underbelly in all of us, and dares us to ask ourselves a simple question: What is “normal”?

Recommend is too tame a word for “Casa Valentina”. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.

“Casa Valentina” will run until November 28, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

For tickets or more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.