Summer of Peace; Scottsboro Boys at ACT-SF
The architects of the Peace and Justice Movement or the Human Rights Movement are African Americans without question. If one looks at African Liberation Movements sustained by the formerly enslaved as resistance from bondage-physical shackles and then legislative ones, this continues to be our fight whether that is Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Marcus Garvey, Martin King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks or Shirley Chisholm.
The question of human rights continues to be an issue when one’s humanity, not to mention citizenship is up for interpretation, never a given in the land of one’s birth and to a certain degree ancestry. If one’s humanity is questioned continuously what does that do to the psyche of the interrogator and the maligned victim? Does the denial of one’s existence make one question such presence oneself? One sees this come into play when once charges are brought against the nine youth, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys in March 1931—alone in the cell, in ACT’s production, the men start fighting.
Accusations fly as the larger and more imposing men try to get one of the other men, all or most strangers to one another prior to the arrest, to confess to the crime of rape. The white judicial system in Alabama sees all black men and in this case, black boys, as guilty—convicted or not, captured or not, in custody or not. The boys soon learn over the course of 30 years that they were condemned at birth and that they have no rights.
The evening I attended the play—it was the third activity in a long list on my to do list, beginning with a film screening at the Variety Club, Searching for Sugar Man, followed by another film screening, The House I Live In, dir. Eugene Jarecki, at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children—
Dressed in my white, I walked up Market from 4th Street and at about Powell I saw an Ifa friend of mine—we chatted for a bit and I continued my half hour walk to Van Ness Avenue where the offices are located. The Jarecki's film which Dorsey Nunn invited me to see along with other organizers, looks at the costs of the “war on drugs” on American society: who benefits and who loses. So as the clock inched its way toward 6:00 and then 6:30 p.m. I had to excuse myself and start walking to Geary and Mason, or at least that was my intention after I stopped at Walgreens for dinner on the run: Odwalla Green Protein and 8 Rabbits protein bar. It was there I realized I’d never make it on time and started looking for a taxi.
With no time to spare, I picked up my tickets at Will Call and then as I stood in the lobby the cast gathered to go in—It was perfect. Mr. Bones told me that they wouldn't hold the show for me. The men did their "Minstrel March" into the audience from the back and onto the stage for their opening song "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!" which I watched from the back, before being escorted to perhaps one of the best seats in the house I have ever sat in.
While the lyrical content is thought provoking, the story is a hard one to wrap one’s mind around, let alone watch—nine youth tried again and again, found guilty and sentences to die in the electric chair again and again, despite proof that the accusers were lying about the rape charges again and again.
Later in a conversation, called On the Couch, hosted by the chief of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, many patrons said they were disturbed that ACT would produce such a play—cast such a serious topic as a vaudeville musical. Some patrons said that had they known the content, they would have not attended and that they never would attend such work in the future.
I’d been reading the memoir, Our Southern Home by Waights Taylor Jr. for the past month almost, so I knew quite a bit about the story and I was curious to see how the writers and choreographers pulled off such a daring feat—why should a tragedy make people feel good? Why should such an innocuous form, one that was used to demean and disappear the black population be revived or unearthed to tell this story?
Some history needs to stay in the crypt.
With the killing of black youth in the headlines over the past several years beginning with Oscar Grant, then Trayvon Martin and the execution of Troy Anthony Davis, is this theatrical run a way to soften the rumbling discontent? Who after all is the audience?
The cast is all black with the exception of a white overseer type character—the Interlocutor, who played all the officials in charge of the boys’ fates. Look at the symbolism here—and there was more, little more favorable, and that was the appearance of the silent black woman—a flip side Madonna. She doesn’t speak much, but when she does that is where the play should end. It wouldn’t justify the caricature at work for the balance of the play, but it would redeem it a little. If it wasn't the black cast, and the dollars generated by such a run, I'd say, skip the play.
John Kander & Fred Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys currently on stage at American Conservatory Theatre. in San Francisco is a retelling of an important travesty of justice the case of nine African American youth in 1931, a case which had nine or ten trials and in all told, when the men were finally released the eldest was in his mid-thirties. Most die much too early, their lives permanently stained by the false accusations of two white women who cry rape to avoid the public stigma of prostitution.
This does not fit the type of story one might see on Broadway, right? Broadway known for its musicals and nostalgia for what we think when American values come to mind—fictional values, when faced with the application of justice and who gets picked with the American Dream Lottery ticket number gets pulled—a musical. Yet on many levels it works as a progenitor of white skin privilege’s notions of justice. With book by David Thompson, choreography and direction by Susan Stroman, we see singing and dancing black men, dressed in opening and closing scenes in black face one imagined, the other real.
What is the message here?
The men when finally acquitted are damaged for life, especially those who do not disappear into anonymity. Innocence is not something black men can anticipate even after acquitted. There is something wrong with a country that lynches nine youth for breakfast and provides a soundtrack for purchase later on.
The play closed early in New York. It was a bit too real, perhaps cut too close to home, especially during an annual holiday season where Americans, read white Americans and their bleached friends, want to spend themselves into oblivion. So Scottsboro Boys closed and came to San Francisco, where it is not only well received it has been extended--wiping away any economic losses.
There is something to be said about the black experience couched in this American story, one where founding fathers and mothers, would try to recast the truth as something tasteful when the venom has just gotten sharper and more lethal over time. When ACT mounted David Feldshuh's Ms. Evers' Boys, a hard play to sit through, the work was so riveting one had to peel herself out of the seat afterward. A bitter pill.
Now here we are in Alabama again. Both plays look at black male sexuality. In the Tuskegee Experiment, the men were not treated for syphilis and died horrific deaths, not to mention infected their lovers and children with disease related maladies later. No one was charged and no reparations were given to the effected families. In the case of the Scottsboro Boys, the men nor their heirs have received reparations from the State of Alabama, to date, for the intentional miscarriage of justice.
This would be a useful goal for the presenters of this work. Reparations for the Scottsboro descendents. In New York, one of the actors, James T. Lane, told me museum staff was at an audience discussion.
Another action would be to invite organizations like LSPC and Prison Focus, Families with a Future, Critical Resistance, California Coalition for Women Children and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights to address audiences at ACT-SF and give people a way to get organized and get involved.
David Mamet's play RACE at ACT-SF was a part of the theatre's last season. In both works a sexual violation is contested. In Mamet's play it is a black woman who accuses a rich powerful white man, who says it was consensual. The rookie partner, Susan, a black woman, says the woman is telling the truth and their potential client is lying. Audiences found this play hilarious and it was not a musical or comedy--so go figure.
When a black woman is the victim it is funny, and when a white woman is the victim it is tragic. One of the boys, Haywood sings about his regret that his lying was reason for a white man to enter his house and violate his mom, this is why he tells the truth and will not plea guilty. Blame the child for the rape, rather than a society that does not respect black women, a social structure that sees black women as commodities even in 2012 (Mamet's play).
Prepare to be angry. Prepare to answer a lot of questions if you take children. Prepare for nightmares, echoing nightmares that don't get any better as the days and weeks pass.
Finally, think about a better or more valuable use of one's time, a none renewable resource and then decide if for the time spent, is the damage to one's spirit worth it.