Their story is told by a cast of 11 African American males, one Caucasian male, and one African American female, in a minstrel show format in The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, writers of Chicago and Cabaret, on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at Guthrie Theater, now through September 25, 2010. The Broadway-bound production that was featured Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before its Guthrie Theater debut is directed by five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman, who directed The Producers, and features a book by David Thompson. The history of the story is jarring. The connotation of a minstrel show is painful. Yet, the combination of two challenging constructs prompts a courageous conversation on racial ideology for people of all ethnicities.
Colman Domingo, an award winning 19-year veteran actor with experience on Broadway, (most recently starring in Chicago), film and television, plays six different characters as Mr. Bones, one of two endmen in the play. Domingo recalls his introduction to the story in an African American Studies course as a sophomore at Temple University. “I was really blown away more than anything…… as an African American man, all those fears that my parents had for me growing up, my stepfather grew up in the south and my mother grew up in Philadelphia, but they always had these fears for me when I would go to other neighborhoods. They feared for my safety and I didn’t understand why because I thought I was living in a very modern age --but they had their fears for me growing up and they were not unjustified. When I learned more about the Scottsboro case I was like now I know exactly what they were talking about,” said Domingo.
The same fears are played on as the audience is simultaneously entertained through song and dance, all the while reliving a tragedy through the devices of a minstrel show. Minstrel shows, a big part of American entertainment for 100 years during the 19th and 20th centuries, are comedic, theatrical performances done in song and dance, with characters in black face relaying stereotypical messages. Characters include an interlocutor who serves as the emcee of the production, sings a few songs, and is the object of jokes told by the endmen. Endmen are two characters who played the tambourine and bones, and were called Tambo and Bones. They wore black face with big painted lips, dressed in plantation clothes, and told jokes about the interlocutor. In this production African American males portray white men as the endmen.
For Domingo, the production correlates to a lot of present day social injustices. “It looks at a lot of damaging images about African Americans and also the story is so painful. It’s also a story that is not so unfamiliar to what happens today in the judicial system, in the jail system, etc, and how Black men are often misrepresented or underrepresented. When we are talking about racism, in 1931 in the south, oddly enough I can relate to it in 2010. And so in doing the research it really brought up issues of what is happening today in America especially now in this age of Obama and how people are treating him as President of the United States. And how bigotry and racism is still running so rampant and it is not even disguised, I think. It really shocked me into this uber awareness of what’s happening in my present day in our lives right now when people can just stand up and yell at the president ‘you lie’ with so much disrespect,” said Coleman.
People from all walks of life have experienced the production and interpreted an awareness that made them face their own reality. Domingo often witnesses a range of responses to the work he and his fellow cast mates present nearly every night.
“Someone in the same breath can be laughing, right next to them someone is completely shocked and horrified, and someone next to them is crying. So I think this piece will challenge you to hear it in a different way or to see something different.”
Domingo was introduced to the production by an artistic director who encouraged him to check it out. He received the script, read the title, “The Scottsboro Boys: A Minstrel Show”, and considered the known integrity of the writers and director, and thought there must be something cool about the piece. As he proceeded to read the script he knew immediately that he had to be a part of the production. “I thought it was really special, I thought it was really fresh, different and original and it was so in alignment with me as a creative artist. It’s not just about entertainment, it’s about social change,” he said.
In order for social change to take effect through this production, Domingo is seeking the help of the African- merican community to meet him and his fellow cast mates halfway. As they perform the material from a place of honesty, they want the community to encourage their creativity and work regarding such a large social issue that has transcended generations. Domingo said, “It’s my personal plea to make sure the African American community supports this musical and comes out. Come out like they would come out for a Tyler Perry movie. Eleven Black men on stage together and we are not playing gang bangers and thugs. It’s that special thing that comes along once in a lifetime and I really want us to recognize that that this is our story. This is our entertainment. We are taking back the way we tell the story. It is owning the form of minstrelsy as well as owning who we are. And with that ownership we have got to come out and support it. We have got to come out and make this story fly and sing, to let people know that we want to hear more stories like this.”
For tickets to The Scottsboro Boys visit www.guthrietheater.org or call (612) 377-2224.