When you enter Rauh Auditorium at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, please leave Uncle Tom in the lobby. He isn’t ready for what you’re about to experience. The last time CMU faculty member and director Tome Cousin got his hands on history, he reconstructed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Tom became “woke.”
First, some background: When “The Scottsboro Boys” hit Broadway in 2010, it earned mixed reviews. Critics ranged from aghast and appalled to brilliant and daring. There was more consternation when it received 12 Tony nominations. That was in part because of the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (they wrote music and lyrics for “Cabaret” and “Chicago”) who’ve established themselves as provocateurs with no qualms of throwing shade whilst entertaining you. Cousin eagerly follows their lead.
Now, the review: When the play opens to minimal props and lots of bare stage, the focal point is a garish red curtain with gold tassels and trim that lends a vaudeville-esque vibe. The year is 1955 (the year 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched). A solitary lady seems to be daydreaming, perhaps pondering the similarities; the nine Scottsboro boys were about the same age (12-19) when arrested while “hobo-ing” on a train bound for Memphis. They too were falsely accused, but they were charged with raping two White women.
I admit I approached the show with trepidation because I was hearing chatter about Blackface and minstrels. Yes, there are cringe-inducing moments and there are plenty of innuendo and irony, but beyond the satire you see an obscenely-talented ensemble who leave everything—acting, dancing and singing—on the stage; to single them out would take up more space than available.
Some will find “The Scottsboro Boys” a tasteless rendition of a horrific piece of history that still plays out to this day. Those not familiar with the story will be compelled to learn more. You will also receive a cultural history lesson reflecting the cruel nature of Jim Crow during the first half of the 20th century, and wonder how and why we continue to repeat the past instead of learning from to go forward.