“The Scottsboro Boys" has a nearly all-Black cast and uses the structure of a minstrel show as a narrative device to expose the racism of white Southerners. (Photo/42nd Street Moon)
“The Scottsboro Boys" has a nearly all-Black cast and uses the structure of a minstrel show as a narrative device to expose the racism of white Southerners. (Photo/42nd Street Moon)

‘Scottsboro Boys’: Kander and Ebb’s musical about racism and injustice playing in S.F.

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The Jewish song-writing duo Kander and Ebb are best known for their work on the Broadway shows “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” One of their final collaborations, “The Scottsboro Boys,” is playing through May 21 at San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre.

First staged in New York in 2010, six years after Fred Ebb’s death, the musical tells the true story of the Scottsboro Nine, a group of Black boys and men between the ages of 13 and 19 who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train passing through Alabama in 1931. The Scottsboro Nine were arrested and nearly lynched by a white mob, then were tried in the town of Scottsboro and convicted by an all-white jury.

Eight of the nine were sentenced to death.

Their cases dragged on for years, and the U.S. Supreme Court made two separate rulings overturning their convictions. All of the defendants were paroled or had escaped from prison by 1946.

The ordeal is considered one of the most shameful examples of the miscarriage of justice in American legal history. The Scottsboro Nine became a cause celebre, and figures such as Albert Einstein joined a campaign calling for their freedom. They would also inspire a number of works of art, including a play by Langston Hughes, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Scottsboro Boys” musical.

“How do you write a musical where the audience will respond to the story even though it’s about some very ugly things?” John Kander said in an interview with the New York Times in 2010. “I never write a piece thinking that I have to do X because the audience will like X. That’s paralyzing. But we are entertainers, all of us, and finding great entertainment in a story like this one has been a test, a thrilling one.”

Kander, who is 96, continues to work and is set to receive the 2023 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.

“The Scottsboro Boys,” which is being staged in San Francisco by 42nd Street Moon, has a nearly all-Black cast and uses the structure of a minstrel show as a narrative device to expose the racism of white Southerners. Mr. Tambo (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Mr. Bones (Albert Hodge) are the “two jolly pranksters” who serve as narrators and comic foils designed to shock audience members. They tell jokes and perform caricatures of white sheriffs and lawyers, including Samuel Leibowitz, the real-life Jewish lawyer who was recruited by the International Labor Defense to defend the Scottsboro Nine.

Attorney Samuel Leibowitz (front row on left) with the Scottsboro 9. (Photo/Morgan County Archives)
Attorney Samuel Leibowitz (front row on left) with the Scottsboro Nine. (Photo/Morgan County Archives)

One of the numbers, “Electric Chair,” describes what it feels like to be electrocuted. Another, “Financial Advice,” is sung by Mr. Bones from the perspective of an antisemitic district attorney. “Go getcha some Jew money,” he advises one of the women who accused the Scottsboro Nine of raping her but later recanted.

In a review of the original 2010 Broadway production, critic Charles Isherwood wrote, “Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb have written a zesty if not top-tier score, but the pleasures of a jaunty ragtime melody and a clever lyric are hard to savor when they are presented in such an unavoidably grim context.”

Daniel Thomas, artistic director of 42nd Street Moon, called “The Scottsboro Boys” a “difficult piece of theater” but an important and timely one, too.

“This show is an example of the medium of theater being used to tell a story that may be uncomfortable, but that is based in truth and can be a call to examine things that are wrong in our society,” Thomas told J. “It forces us to ask ourselves how we can continue to do better.”

“The Scottsboro Boys”

Through May 21 at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. $35-80. Not recommended for patrons under 14.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.