Blackface on Broadway

Blackface on Broadway

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Imagine “Slavery: The Musical,” the Broadway smash; “Lynching,” the runaway West End hit; or “Precious: The Burlesque Show.” On Saturday, a group of vociferous and animated folk gathered outside the Lyceum Theater on Broadway to protest “The Scottsboro Boys.”

There’s Blackface.

On Broadway.

In 2010.

This musical depicts one of the most horrific episodes of injustice in American civil rights history, when 1930s Alabama saw fit to falsely accuse and sentence to death nine young Black boys for the rape of two white women. Their names were Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charley Weems, Eugene Williams and Andrew Wright. Their ages ranged between 12 and 19 years old.

“We are going to shut down this so-called play. There are no Black people who should be paying to see this minstrel show. It is an insult,” said Councilman Charles Barron, as he led the Freedom Party demonstration outside the Lyceum on Saturday. “You think we want to have a musical about Jim Crow and the ‘Strange Fruit’ that era produced?”

Susan Stroman directed and choreographed the show, which opened at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., in July. The musical officially opened on Broadway on Halloween, October 31, at the Lyceum Theatre.

Dancer, singer and cultural activist Nana Camille Yarbrough saw the show on Tuesday night. She was disgusted. “The American minstrel show was created in the early 1800s by European American entertainers,” she said, “who cruelly distorted the language, dance, song, humor, style, physiognomy and performance forms of our enslaved ancestors.

“Today, that insult, that cruel distortion, is carried forward in the Broadway musical ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’“

Yarbrough added, “And, yes, there was blackface at the end.”

On March 25,1931, facing charges of prostitution and vagrancy in Alabama, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates claimed instead that they had been assaulted by a group of Black men. Mere weeks later, on April 9, 1931,after an all-white jury convicted nine Black teens of rape, a white judge sentenced them to death. It took years and immovable dedication to save the nine and eventually get them exonerated.

This is the backdrop to which some genius decided to base, write and produce a musical. To compound the error, the show, written by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, uses the minstrel tradition as a dramatic vehicle to tell the story.

“This ‘musical comedy’ makes a mockery of an historic travesty of justice with total disregard for the humanity and suffering of the judicial lynchings that have marred the history of the United States then and now,” said Amadi Ajamu, a Freedom Party spokesperson. “Cite the ongoing struggle for justice and reparations for the ‘Central Park Five.’ Five teenage boys who served up to 15 years in prison for a rape of a white female Wall Street broker they did not commit…We cannot stand by and allow this show to continue without standing up in resistance. It is an atrocity and should be shut down immediately.”

While Stroman did not make a scheduled interview, actor Coleman Domingo did talk to the Amsterdam News.

“I play Mr. Bones, one of the end men in the standard minstrel show. He is a white Southern bigot.”

There is no pan stick though, no white face, Domingo admits. “It’s a deconstruction of the minstrel tradition.”

Responding to the Freedom Party’s ongoing protest, he said, “It seems to be a controversy not based on anything. You can’t have a protest by the Freedom Party unless you saw the show. It’s really unfortunate because the piece is pursuing dialogue about race and history.

“You must at least see the piece,” said Domingo. “They are more enraged because it is a white creative team. They think the Black actors have gone into this blindly, but we all had a part in creating [the piece] and believe 100 percent that this is the best way to convey the horrors of the Scottsboro Boys using aspects of the minstrel form. We actually deconstruct the minstrel form. We are actively trying to tell the piece with integrity compassion and love.

“In order for the Freedom Party to come to the table, you have to know what is being served. I just wish there was a dialogue.”

Barron was unmoved. “We don’t have to see the play to see that our history is being mocked,” he said. “Several of our supporters did see the play and brought back an intelligent analysis of what they saw. I don’t have to see the play to see what this is. Others who are not even with us came out and were outraged.”

According to Domingo, the daughter of Clarence Norris (one of the nine) and his grandson came and “loved and appreciated the show. Denzel Washington came last night [Tuesday] and said he truly believed in the show. We’re not using the minstrel form to make fun. Minstrel was used to make a caricature of Black people. We’re not doing that. The Scottsboro case was presented as a minstrel show, as entert