(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/29.)
One of theatre's most potent weapons is an ironic contrast between form and content. It was used by
Joan Littlewood in Oh, What A Lovely War and, more recently, by Stephen Sondheim in Assassins. It is also the chief instrument of this very fine US musical, with music and lyrics by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, that deploys a minstrel show format to expose the racist bigotry that pervaded the
case of The Scottsboro Boys.
I suspect the story is not that well-known so a few facts may be in order. In 1931 nine black youths,
who were riding the rails, were hauled off a freight train in Scottsboro, Alabama, and accused of raping two white women. In those days of rough justice, the youths were swiftly tried, convicted and sentenced to the chair. They were reprieved only because of an active, political campaign but their case dragged on through the courts and it was 1937 before the four youngest were released.
It is bitterly ironic that, while the others suffered a more protracted fate, the four freed young men went straight into a variety act at Harlem's Apollo Theatre.