Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys fools you into thinking you’re getting a straight retelling of the events and trials of the nine young African-American men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931 Alabama.
After a half hour of through-the-fourth-wall storytelling, the cast of nine talented actors breaks into vaudeville song and dance. They wear white-face masks and adopt the accents and manners of the lawyers and judges who teased and tormented them into thinking they were getting justice. They also become the two white girls, embellishing their fake stories.
The whiplash switch from narrative to vaudeville demonstrates how the wheels of justice didn’t turn for black boys in the 1930s and remind us that they’re not turning very smoothly now.
Direct from Death Row is indeed a night of vaudeville and sorrow. It’s an extremely powerful play, performed superbly by the cast from the 2015 production.
The remounted Raven Theatre production, subtitled “An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow,” won the outstanding ensemble award at the non-Equity Jeff awards in June. Skillfully directed by Michael Menendian, Mark Stein’s script is marvelously enhanced by the songs by Harley White Jr., choreography by Kat Dennis, and music direction and piano performance by Frederick Harris. The team has created a searingly sad and satirical presentation of one of the 20th century’s most heinous injustices. The Scottsboro boys’ case, supported by the Communist Party (CPUSA) and the NAACP, became a cause célèbre in the North in the 1930s and was one of the events that launched the civil rights movement decades later.
Railroad sound effects signal the beginning of the play on a sparsely designed set, representing a railroad station. The boys, who ranged in age from 12 to 19 when they were arrested, have come back from the beyond to tell their story. They were hoboing (riding the rails) to Memphis or places beyond, some for adventure, some for other reasons. They come from different places and they’re not all together. A fight starts with some white boys, who jump off the train. When the train stops in the next town, the sheriff arrests all nine black boys. . Two young white women claim they were raped by the boys.
That’s the backstory. Haywood (Kevin Patterson) is the main narrator with comments and anecdotes from the others. The story of their many trials, including a US Supreme Court appeal, are long and could have been tedious, had they not been handled with song, dance and satire. The boys were tried separately or in pairs in trials that spun out over many years, involving a frameup, all-white juries and lynch mobs. (Blacks were disenfranchised in Alabama and so could not serve on juries.) Eight of the nine were originally sentenced to death, but none was executed. (The entire legal process is spelled out in the Scottsboro Boys’ Wikipedia entry.)
All the performers except Patterson play multiple roles. Andrew Malone, who plays Charlie, doubles as the New York defense attorney, Sam Leibowitz. He faces off against the boys’ nemesis, Attorney General Knight (Semaj Miller, who also plays Olen). The two attorneys perform some slick dances during their various legal contretemps, as does Brandon Greenhouse as the dignified NAACP lawyer, Walter White, who wears a brown-face mask. Jackets and briefcases are all that’s needed to transform a Scottsboro boy into an attorney. Their gestures and accents change to suit their roles. The other boys are Willie (Breon Arzell, who also plays lawyer Joe Brodsky) and Clarence (Tamarus Harvell, who also plays a judge).
The three youngest boys are played by female actors, who double as Scottsboro mothers and the accusers. Charli Williams plays Leroy. Katrina D. Richard plays Eugene and accuser Victoria Price. Anna Dauzvardis plays young Ozie as well as Ruby Bates. The women wear white masks and don bonnets, handbags and dresses to play the accusers, who tell their story to the audience and are interrogated by lawyers.
The set design is by Ray Toler with costumes by Sarah Jo White. Mary O’Dowd handled the props and set dressing that enabled the actors’ quick identity changes. The very effective masks were created by David Knezz.
The Mark Stein play is not to be confused with the musical The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander and Fred Ebb, which ran on Broadway in 2010.
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys runs 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission. You can see it at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., through August 27. Performances are at 7:30pm Friday and Saturday and 3pm Sunday. Tickets are $42 with discounts available. Buy them online or by calling 773-338-2177.