The conversation about race in America appears to have shifted radically since the 2010 Broadway debut of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys (★★★★). The Tony-nominated musical — about nine black adolescents who were arrested and thrown in jail based on the false rape accusation of two young white women — closed a year before the world woke up to the death of Trayvon Martin.
The show came years before the cultural vocabulary expanded to include names like Philando Castile or Heather Heyer, or phrases like Charleston church shooting, and #drivingwhileblack, #nappingwhileblack, #grillingwhileblack, and so on.
Just keeping up with that conversation can feel exhausting. But surely audiences now might be better equipped to engage with The Scottsboro Boys. Our increasingly cruel world has provided illuminating context for understanding this sad, but true story.
Signature’s production of Kander & Ebb’s mordantly funny swan song registers the striking impression that even though the show feels fresh as a daisy, in actuality, today’s conversation on race hasn’t progressed much since 2010 — or even 1931, when the musical is set. These days, black guys get shot for waving cellphones, and arrested for sitting at Starbucks, so what in that regard has changed since Scottsboro?
Perhaps the tone and tenor of the discourse are sharper, and The Scottsboro Boys is a masterful display of bending tone almost to the point it snaps the show in half — but somehow it all holds together. The sly book by David Thompson (Steel Pier) and the buoyant music and lyrics by Kander and Ebb tap-dance on a line between entertaining and hammy, without sacrificing any of the work’s challenging frankness.
Joe Calarco’s robust staging captures the audience-pleasing spirit of minstrelsy and vaudeville performance, used to sweeten the taste of barbed, bitter commentary. And the outstanding cast delivers both the broad, comic song-and-dance, and the heart-heavy historical drama.
Does any tune here have the electric urgency of “Cabaret,” or the sizzle of “All That Jazz?” Probably not — a few of the songs sound like reworked Chicago rags. But music director Brian P. Whitted leads an able eight-piece orchestra that produces a tight and bouncy take on the score. The band sounds hot.
And in terms of sizzle and urgency, the production’s provocative imagery and powerful performances more than compensate. The second act’s “You Can’t Do Me” shares a dark twinkle with Chicago‘s “Mr. Cellophane,” but this plea to be seen and to matter seems to plunge the knife in deeper. Sung by one of the boys, Haywood Patterson (Lamont Walker II), on behalf of himself and, indirectly, jailed and lynched black innocents throughout the South, it’s a plea that Emmett Till and many others never got to sing.
Walker’s Haywood, the most prominently featured among the nine accused, is the linchpin of a talented ensemble. In him, this show has a compelling star who should find plenty of future roles to keep him busy, especially once precision catches up to star quality. His performance is gripping, but of course Walker just can’t do it alone. Malik Akil brings the right attitude in his double role as accused Charlie Weems, and accuser Victoria Price. As the accused Clarence Norris, Darrell Purcell, Jr. provides a passionate voice of defiance.
Stephen Scott Wormley and Chaz Alexander Coffin essay a variety of roles with quick-stepping aplomb as the mischievous troupers, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, who carry out the show’s performance within a performance alongside Christopher Bloch’s well-calibrated Interlocutor.
Choreographer Jared Grimes puts the entire cast through their paces with vigorous dancing, based on Susan Stroman’s work from the original. The Scottsboro Boys tap, slide, and high kick across two levels of scenic designer Daniel Conway’s set, dazzlingly followed by designer Sherrice Mojgani’s graceful lighting.
The Scottsboro Boys is as much toe-tapping fun as any dark satire about a tragic and true miscarriage of justice has any right to be. And Calarco’s production makes the feeling sink in that these black lives mattered — with no explicit sloganeering being necessary in order to get the message across.
The humor is downright macabre at times, but if that’s what it takes to keep constructive conversation going, then the writers of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” were the right men for the job. Laughing in the face of racial injustice, in this case, is better than looking the other way.
The Scottsboro Boys runs to July 1 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va. Tickets are $40 to $103. Call 703-820-9771, or visit sigtheatre.org.