Musical hits the right notes

THEATRE
THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS
The Young Vic | Four stars

THE Scottsboro Boys tells the story of a real-life miscarriage of justice that caught the imagination of pre-Civil Rights America. In 1931, nine black teenagers – some as young as 13 – were frogmarched off a boxcar they were riding and accused of raping two white Alabamian women. They were innocent (one of the accusers later confessed to lying), but these were the days when black men risked a lynching just by glancing at a white woman. They got a taste of Southern justice at its most bitter.

Chicago and Cabaret creators John Kander and Fred Ebb controversially chose to present the story as a minstrel show. When it opened in New York in 2010 many theatre goers boycotted the play. For many, the events upon which it is based were too serious, too wrong and too recent to presented in such a way. I disagree. It’s a conceit that cleverly captures spectacle of the trial: the way the star performers – including a nattily dressed lawyer from New York – built careers out of the case, and how the men were forgotten after the show was over.

One thing it’s hard to get a sense of are the lengths of time the group spend incarcerated. One of the minstrels comes on with a sign reading 1937 and you realise that they’ve been locked in the grinding machinery of racist Alabama penal system for almost half of their young lives. In a cruelly ironic twist we’re told that two of the boys joined minstrel shows after being pardoned.

A richly satisfying musical with plenty of political guile.