Photo by Roger Mastroianni
When you're doing strength training, your fitness instructor will often have you stand on one foot or hold a kettle bell in one hand. The purpose is to destabilize your body and require your core muscles to work harder to compensate.
That explains why I hate my fitness instructor.
It also serves as a useful analogy for The Scottsboro Boys, the final John Kander and Fred Ebb musical partnership that is now at Beck Center. This fascinating piece is about a deadly serious Depression-era event that added fuel to the black civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The situation involved the illegal railroading of nine innocent young black teens (ages 13-19) in a small southern town, who were falsely accused of raping two white women. In this musical re-telling, the audience is intentionally thrown off-balance by treating much of the story as a minstrel show.
At first glance, this might seem to be lacking compassion, since the play is full of white racists and African-American caricatures that are played for laughs. But you soon realize that the injustices are real, the laughs are hollow, and the void those laughs disappear into achingly recall the racial state of affairs years ago. And yes, still today.
In this production, director and choreographer Jon Martinez crafts a minstrel show vibe on a bare set with a few chairs and three slightly askew proscenium arches studded with lightbulbs. He puts his cast through their paces, and the dance numbers they create are cringingly evocative of the minstrel show ethic, which sought to embed virulent hate in the guise of entertainment.
This ensemble of players from the Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre Program often succeed in capturing the curdled rot of blatant racism in 1930s Alabama. Most of the actors take on more than one role, crossing races and genders, and the impact is undeniable.
Shouldering a lot of the task with skill and imagination are Nick Drake as Mr. Bones and Charles Mayhew Miller as Mr. Tambo, who execute energetic, quicksilver character changes as they switch from minstrel show hosts to electric chair victims to officers of the court. They serve as the beating heart of this production.
Those two are overseen by the white Interlocutor, played with unctuous ooze by Greg Violand. Together with the nine boys on trial—played by Gordia Hayes, Marcus Martin, Jahir Hipps, Anthony Harris, Elijah Dawson, Tavon Olds Sample, Brinden Harvey, Javar Parker and Savannah Cooper— these performers tell the unbelievably tragic story of the boys who were swept up in the furious racial animosity of the time.
While many of the songs are not intended to be beautiful, in the usual Kander/Ebb tradition, the tender ballad "Go Back Home" stands out as a signature piece. It is led, as several of the songs are, by Haywood Patterson (Harris), who has a strong vocal tone but sometimes strays slightly from the intended notes.
The one female performer in the cast, RhonniRose Mantilla, stands aside as a quiet observer until we learn who The Lady really is. And that is when the full power of The Scottsboro Boys lands with authority. As entertaining as it is, this play focuses a revealing light on the disease of racism. And that light that must never be dimmed, no matter how off-balance it makes us feel.
The Scottsboro Boys
Through February 23 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, beckcenter.org, 216-521-2540.
Christine Howey, a former stage actor and director, is executive director of Literary Cleveland.
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