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The Scottsboro Boys problem

June 28, 2012

It's hard to fault The Scottsboro Boys. The 2010 John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, which is currently running at San Francisco's Geary stage in an arresting co-production between the American Conservatory Theater and The Old Globe, gets full marks for every detail from casting to music to lighting.

And yet something bothers me about the show, which I experienced yesterday on opening night.

I've been trying to pin down what it is that I found so irksome about it, and I can't quite put my finger on it. But I think it has something to do with the fact that The Scottsboro Boys feels very much in line the growing clatch of theatrical works about race relations in this country that hide  formulaic political correctness behind a veneer of clever postmodern staging ideas and metaphors.

Suzan Lori-Parks pioneered the formula, with plays like Topdog/Underdog and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. When Topdog came out in 2001, its approach to deconstructing and politicizing historical minstrel shows seems very fresh. But a decade on, the idea feels stale.

Still, this feeling doesn't detract from the power of the storytelling in The Scottsboro Boys. It's just a nagging thing. But it won't go away....


  • Could you unpack "formulaic political correctness?" I haven't seen The Scottsboro Boys. It's just that I find that the tem "political correctness" is sometimes a coded way of dismissing challenges to - what I see as - the deeply embedded racism from which the US has suffered since its beginnings. I doubt that you're using the term that way, so I'm curious what you did mean.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 29, 2012 at 11:47 AM  

  • By "formulaic political correctness" I mean the way in which The Scottsboro Boys, like so many other performance works that take on the US's terrible race relations history, makes the audience feel like it's watching something fresh and irreverent, when really it's just a clever repackaging of the usual dull scenario depicting white guilt and black innocence.

    By Blogger Chloe Veltman, At June 29, 2012 at 11:53 AM  

  • It is difficult for me not to have an emotional reaction to what you just said. For you these issues are abstract concepts for many they were and are not. Unfortunately a real discussion about the issues is not what most people want to have. People are imperfect, black white purple. But when you have a continuing history of abuse and institutionalize violence throughout a country's history (which we have only been able to start being honest about in the last 50 years) that people do not universally recognize the ramifications of that is not the story you tell first-- and frankly you wouldn't understand it.

    By Blogger SEWcurious, At July 15, 2012 at 10:15 AM  

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