Point of View Columns

Tears of a Clown

A sad and tragic joke would be telling the sad and tragic epic of the Scottsboro Boys as a Broadway musical. It would be even worse to use the historically demeaning and culturally offensive device of minstrelsy.

Who in their right mind would have to the bad taste to produce such an obscenity. And who would invest millions of dollars in the process?

A bit of history is in order. According to the Archives at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, 3, 445 black men and women were lynched between 1882 and 1964. This does not take into account the tens of thousands of black men and women who were illegally imprisoned, beaten or driven from their homes.

The story of the Scottsboro Boys took place in 1931. Nine young black men were falsely accused of rape by two white women and in a rush to judgment they were tried, convicted and sentenced in record time by an Alabama court. Only the intercession of civil rights lawyers saved their lives with countless appeals, ultimately resulting in two Supreme Court decisions.

One decision affirmed the right of all defendants to a lawyer. The other decision declared it unlawful to exclude persons from juries because of their race. (One wonders what ruling might issue from Robertson, Alito, Scalia and Thomas – Four Blocks of Right Wing Granite on today’s Supreme Court)

What is clear is that the Scottsboro “boys” were denied counsel and that they were tried before juries from which black people had been excluded. What is also clear is that but for the intercession of lawyers from outside of Alabama they would have been executed on the basis of false allegations of rape by two white women, joining the legions of other black men who met their demise in a similar fashion.

It is this historical context that makes the Broadway minstrel muscial “Scottsboro Boys” so perplexing and unacceptable. I have seen reviews of the show and read words like “brilliant” and “riveting”. But there are boundaries of taste and sensitivity and historical respect that are worth observing, even in an artistic enterprise.

Using the name “redskins” as the name for a football team is an affront to all Native Americans, even if it is “just for fun”. Portraying Jews dancing the Hora at Auschwitz would be simply awful, no matter the ironic intent of the artist. Disco dancing in the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11 is offensive even in its contemplation.

I have no doubt that the directors of “Scottsboro Boys”, had some artistic vision that is being articulated in this show. But minstrelsy – a truly distinct American art form that originated from white men imitating black men who were imitating white men who were imitating black men – is a device best left on the shelf of some art history class.

It is not the best way to introduce the subject of injustice to an audience that is largely ignorant with respect to the subject of lynching and miscarriages of justice that have been perpetrated against black Americans while most of America remained mute.

As noted, it takes millions of dollars to produce a Broadway musical. Most productions are financed the old fashioned way – “angels” (individuals or consortia that make their money by betting on which projects can become box office hits). These are very personal investments and mini-productions are organized for these “angels” who literally sit in judgment.

I wonder if any of these “angels” thought that minstrel musical “Scottsboro Boys” might be in bad taste? Were any of the angels concerned that there might be black men and women in the audience who lost uncles and fathers and aunts and sisters to the tsunami of outright violence against blacks that swept across this land less than a century ago?

I wonder if anyone cared. The fact that “Scottsboro Boys” is now on Broadway is the answer.

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