Re:View – ‘The Scottsboro Boys’
The irony won’t have been lost on the cast currently appearing at the Young Vic in Waterloo.
Eighty-two years and eight months after they were framed for supposedly raping two women on a Memphis freight train, justice has finally been served for all of the Scottsboro Nine, though none are alive to enjoy the moment.
Alabama’s parole board granted posthumous pardons on Thursday for the three remaining members of the group who had yet to have their convictions rescinded, ending one of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the civil rights era.
The story is horrific – the nine black strangers were accused by two white ‘ladies of easy virtue’ who were seeking to deflect their own arrests, and although one of the women openly admitted that they had lied, were still found guilty in a series of absurd trials. Financed by left-wing sympathisers, defence was arranged using a Jewish New York lawyer – possibly the worst thing anyone could have done in a deep South trial. The two who were eventually freed ended up performing in a minstrel show. The others mostly died in jails.
The case brought an end to blindly prejudiced all-white juries, but the grudging pardon took until now to produce. This was Kander & Ebb’s final show before Fred Ebb died, and tells the story in the musical form of a ‘Nigger Minstrel’ show complete with cakewalk and blackface. Ironically, it was picketed on Broadway by well-meaning liberals as history repeated itself, and eventually lost its many nominations to the far less controversial ‘Book of Mormon’.
It’s a powerful tale beautifully and simply told, its emotional punch only lacking a little because the subject matter is all too depressingly familiar. But it’s a fitting finale for Ebb’s career, which reached from stories of communism (‘Flora The Red Menace’) to nazism (Cabaret’) and fascism (‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’), although we’re still awaiting some of the duo’s other productions, including their creepy anti-semitism fable ‘The Visit’.