The story of nine black men falsely accused in Alabama is brought to life in a powerful musical

The talented cast of The Scottsboro Boys takes its audience back in time to what used to be an American pastime: a 1930s minstrel show starring an all-black cast and its white interlocutor. The cast sings and dances a catchy intro while the interlocutor works the room. He asks one woman, “Have you ever been to a minstrel show?” I briefly hold my breath as I wait for her to say “no.” The interlocutor and cast prepare to tell the audience a story unlike one ever told at a minstrel show.

It’s a story that tells the truth about a particularly dark chapter in American history.

That truth starts on the Southern Railroad Line in 1931 with nine young black men aged 12-19 talking in a box car about why they’re on the train. They don’t know each other but share common threads — like being young and black in America, a desire for something more in life, and a search for freedom.

A young man, Haywood Patterson played by the talented Christopher Razor, sings about how the railroad embodies freedom to him. But while the train is stopped in Alabama, local sheriff’s deputies board the train because they heard there was a “ruckus.” In the course of their search, they find two white women who were most definitely turning tricks on the train (Jayvon Rollerson and Randy Chalmers). They give us a very entertaining performance of two promiscuous southern gals. As the deputies razz them about tricking on the train, the two women concoct a story about being raped by the nine young black men.

It’s a dark turn, and the young men know that their freedom and their lives are now property of the State of Alabama.

The story is brought to life in this production at Aurora’s Vintage Theatre. Directed by Betty Hart, this musical version was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and was created by the duo Kander and Ebb that brought us Chicago and Cabaret. Through humor, song and dance, The Scottsboro Boys shines a light on an episode that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.

At the heart of it all is the racist administration of justice that was all too common in the Jim Crow era. As we mark Black History Month, it’s a particularly poignant reminder not only of how far we’ve come but how far we still have left to go.

After their arrest in Alabama, these young men are not given a speedy trial, due process, or even a lawyer who practices basic fundamentals — like being sober in court.  It’s as the Sheriff says: “Justice is indeed just us.”

Mixed emotions

The way the system treats these young men over the years is horrific. This story is one that has played out generation after generation. But The Scottsboro Boys tells the story of these nine young men with song and dance that makes you tap your toes, snap your fingers and laugh while your blood boils at the injustice they endured.

As the young men tell their stories, there’s a strong, loving, weary yet steadfast black woman in the background looking over them (Colette Brown). The woman is present through all eight trials and feels the pain that they are going through.  She’s a mother, although it’s not clear whose actual mother she is. I took her to embody the collective sprit of black mothers’ fears about raising young black and brown boys in a country that doesn’t always value them and often mistreats them.

Through the eight trials, the young men demonstrate how their mental state has changed over the years. One of the young men can’t take it anymore and attempts to get himself killed by the sheriff.  Haywood, the one who originally believed the train embodied freedom, pushes himself to learn to read because he wants to write a good-bye letter to his momma and make sure she knows the truth.  These young men talk and sing about their fears, depression, anger and regrets.

The upbeat music that started at the beginning of the show turns darker toward the end. It’s a reflection of how the system and lies literally took the light out of these young men. Healthy young men who were optimistic and excited about the future are denied the chance to ever reach their full potential by people and a system that declared them guilty even before they had a trial. Even when the accusers recant their testimony, the injustice continues — all because of the color of their skin.

Despite the disturbing nature of The Scottsboro Boys, it’s a wonderful example of how a story can be elevated by an engaging entertainment. The extraordinary cast takes us back in time to a part of our history we must continue to talk about and explore — lest we continue repeating it. It may be particularly relevant during Black History Month, but it’s something to discuss all year long, every year.