Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The Scottsboro Boys"

Photo: Henry DiRocco
presented by American Conservatory Theater in association with The Old Globe
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
June 27th, 2012

Broadway has arrived once again in San Francisco with ACT's Bay Area premiere of "The Scottsboro Boys" (music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, and book by David Thompson).  Told in the form of a Minstrel show, the hit musical relays the tragic, true story of racial injustice that befell the infamous 'Scottsboro Boys': nine African-American teenagers who were accused of raping two young white women on a train in 1931.  If yesterday evening's opening night crowd is any indication, "The Scottsboro Boys" is sure to enjoy a fabulous and successful run in the city by the Bay.  

The choice to frame "The Scottsboro Boys" as a Minstrel show makes a lot of sense as both a narrative and formal device.  In addition to how the history of this genre plays into the time period (1930s) and the racially-charged storyline, the Minstrel structure has the capacity to reach the audience in very unexpected ways.  Choreographically, Minstrel steps provide a sense of familiarity and egalitarianism.  Even without a comprehensive dance education, one knows what the movements from that era look like (time steps, soft shoe, grapevines) and thus, when they appear onstage, their presence feels welcoming.  Similarly, the Minstrel affect of breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the viewer, whether asking a question or giving a punch line, also implies that we in the audience are privy to special insight surrounding the onstage action and events. 

Yet at the same time, placing this horrific tale into a comedically tongue-in-cheek format also seems absurd and pretty bizarre (though absurdity is not necessarily a bad thing).  Here are nine young men falsely accused and imprisoned; who faced years of countless trials, guilty verdicts and death sentences (even after one of the accusers re-canted her testimony); and endured abuse to the core of their beings, physically, emotionally and spiritually.  The talented artistic team realized that the graveness of "The Scottsboro Boys" must be wholly present along with the general Minstrel structure.  It couldn't be ignored or anesthetized; their grim reality requiring its own pulse and breath.  To that end, they interspersed serious, dramatic scenes and songs alongside the high-energy 'production numbers'.  One stand-out example is the first time 'The Boys' are in the jail cell together.  This was a moment of incredibly explosive energy - most of them didn't know each other; they didn't want to know each other; they were angry; they were frightened and they were trapped.  "Go Back Home", a somber and haunting arrangement for all nine voices, encompassed all of these feelings and emotions, with absolutely no reference to the show's Minstrel foundation.  The switching back and forth between serious and melodramatic did not lead to any continuity problems; rather in "The Scottsboro Boys", this theatrical juxtaposition worked to perfection.  

Charged with creating the various dance sequences for "The Scottsboro Boys", Director and Choreographer Susan Stroman had a number of issues to consider.  First, she needed to remain true to the Minstrel-style: classic tap dancing, stylized walking, dance with props.  Stroman knocked this one out of the park; her choreographic authenticity transporting the audience to a much earlier time - one of old-fashioned essences, cramp roll turns, Cincinnattis, half-breaks and full-breaks.  Her movement lexicon was both accurate and gorgeous.

Second, the choreography needed to reflect a complicated dualism - honoring the individuality of each character alongside the strength of the group as a unit.   And though I loved the inventive and dynamic dance routines, unfortunately this goal was only achieved part of the time.  Stroman's treatment of the individual characters was fantastic; the dances revealing nine unique young men, each with a different history and compelling personality.  As the youngest member of "The Scottsboro Boys", Eugene's tap extravaganza ("Electric Chair") spoke to his wasted youth.  Danced brilliantly by Nile Bullock, the piece began as an escape from what was happening and what was likely going to happen in his very near future.  As the number continued, it got more and more out of control and as the waltz clogs morphed to trenches, the tornado of horror that was circling around him was abundantly apparent.  Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson in "You Can't Do Me" was another example of the deep connection that Stroman made between the characters and the choreography.  Near the end of this primarily vocal number, Duncan engaged in an extremely slow soft shoe variation.  As he closed his eyes, and rond de jambed each leg in a deliberate, continuous circle, you could see him clinging to his inner sense of self.  

It was in the group cohesiveness that the choreographic vision suffered a little.  In this cast (which don't get me wrong, was absolutely wonderful), there was a fairly significant disparity in dance technique and training.  And I don't think that is particularly unusual - most casts vary when it comes to dance ability.   But when you have a show that features a ton of unison group dancing as in "The Scottsboro Boys", having dancers at such different levels becomes a visual distraction.  It almost seemed that the unison segments needed to be a little simpler, so that a strong sense of the group could also shine through.

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