Last night my best friend and I went to see The Scottsboro Boys. It is based on the writings of one of the boys, who were dubbed “The Scottsboro Boys” after the location of their trial. In what was an obvious case of racial prejudice and a miscarriage of justice, all nine were convicted. The four youngest were eventually released after a series of trials and re-trials. The remaining five served out various sentences from life, Haywood Patterson died while incarcerated, to six years – for a crime they did not commit.
The staging, telling the story through the conceit of a minstrel show, is inventive and original. There are no “sets” just chairs which became rail cars, buses, courtrooms and prison cells. The lighting design provides drama and context. The nine actors who portray the boys and the two white women who falsely accused them are wonderful – singing, dancing, acting – throughout. The two clowns who played the roles of lawyers, comics, jailers, sheriffs and guards are also excellent.
Even while we were laughing at the buffoonery of the white judges and police, we felt the anger and frustration of the innocent youths. To be falsely charged and then convicted against all evidence, based only on the color of your skin – it sickened me to contemplate it. Yet one only has to look at the percentage of blacks in our jails to realize that the practice continues even now. It defies logic that a racial group which is only 13% of the overall population, probably half of that being women and elderly, makes up 40% of the prison population. There has to be something wrong with our justice system for that to happen.
How many Haywoods are sitting in prison now wanting to tell their story? The Scottsboro case occurred over 80 years ago. I find it shocking how little we’ve progressed in all those years. The fact that such injustice can still be found is why this play is so powerful. If it was just telling ancient history we wouldn’t leave the theater feeling such a heaviness in our souls. Just look at the cases brought to court by the Innocence Project every year to see how flawed our system is.
The program contains some background on the production and the greater meaning of the story. I think this paragraph, taken from an article by Lynell George, sums it up:
“What was on trial during the Scottsboro affair wasn’t simply the truth or the innocence of nine young black men, but the United States itself and the very foundation on which it stood. Just how much closer the country has come to reaching its stated ideals – of justice, freedom and liberty for all – might be measured by what we read in news headlines or what in turn becomes grist for the radio shock-jocks. The right to a fair trial, the testimony of defendants who are wrongly accused, racial parity – are all themes that spin frequently through the news cycle, are all subjects that Americans have, if not personal experience with, a personal stake in.”