In theater, the story you tell and the way you tell it need to be, to some extent, the same thing. A disparity between style and substance can have its uses, but when the two elements do battle, the one that wins is not usually the author’s favorite. Try playing Arthur Miller as if he were Oscar Wilde, and see how little empathy your audience has for Willy Loman.
Writers, naturally, love to dare. And we love their daring, without which playgoing would have little fun or excitement. And nothing’s more daring than trying to merge a story and a style that seem unmergeable. The Scottsboro Boys (Vineyard Theatre), the last project that the late lyricist Fred Ebb worked on with his composing partner John Kander and book writer David Thompson, deals with one of the most painful, grief-racked episodes in our country’s miserable racial history—the prolonged ordeal of nine Southern black men, still in their teens, who “hopped a freight” in Chattanooga in 1931, hoping to find employment somewhere down the line, and instead found themselves under arrest in the nowhere town of Scottsboro, Alabama, charged with raping two young white women who, it turned out, had also been on the train.
As that sentence makes clear, the story of the “Scottsboro Boys,” as the nine came to be known, contains few opportunities for showbiz joy, even Kander and Ebb style. Its positive aspects are few: The case attracted such widespread attention that few other African-Americans in the South were so well protected from lynch mobs. The protracted legal battles over their fate produced two major Supreme Court decisions; thanks to the second, a man of color served on an Alabama jury for the first time since Reconstruction. After several grueling years, four of the “Boys” were ultimately freed; four others, after several more grueling years, were paroled. The ninth, the remarkably brave and resourceful Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), entered prison an 18-year-old illiterate, learned to read and write there, and, having escaped, wrote and published his memoir (at I.F. Stone’s suggestion) before being recaptured. Not exactly optimal fuel for a festive song and dance show.
Kander and Ebb, the songwriters of Cabaret and Chicago, built their joint career on the ironies produced by the disjunction between festive entertainment and unfestive stories of events from past eras. Their previous forays, however, were based on fictions; the characters of The Scottsboro Boys actually existed. Their principal defender, the prominent criminal lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, sat on the bench of New York’s Supreme Court till the late 1970s. (Leibowitz, who risked his life in Alabama to fight the case for years without remuneration, gets remarkably shabby caricature treatment from the show’s writers.)
The team’s would-be-shocking stratagem sets these grim realities against that most racially stereotyped form of musical entertainment, the minstrel show. The “end men,” Bones (Colman Domingo) and Tambo (Forrest McClendon), wearing blackface, play all authority figures not played by the Interlocutor (John Cullum), the cast’s only white actor. The nine “Boys” play all other roles, including the two white prostitutes whose false testimony created the rape accusation. While making clear both the story’s agony and its historical weight, the show’s treatment will undoubtedly make historians wince, as it omits, blurs, misstates, or violently oversimplifies many important matters.
More significantly for audiences, the framing device doesn’t function well, despite a few flamboyantly staged numbers by director-choreographer Susan Stroman, and despite the superb, resilient cast, with Dixon’s truculent, forceful Patterson particularly memorable. Few living Americans know much about minstrel shows; earlier Kander and Ebb works, subverting more familiar modes, could nuance their ironies. Here the bursts of hoopla seem irrelevant to the substance, the cartoon cynicism cursory and glib; it feels as if the “Boys” are being victimized, not by American racism, but by Kander and Ebb. Presenting the case as an episode of pure showbiz exploitation, The Scottsboro Boys never conveys the real Depression miseries, economic and political, that lay behind it. Though black stereotypes lingered, and still do, by 1931 the minstrel show was already a fading memory.
Stereotypes often linger because larger, nonracial archetypes, lodged in the human psyche for eons, lurk behind them. The young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s challenging, unsatisfactory new work, Neighbors (Public Lab), derives part of its dramaturgic muddle from confusing the two. Another part derives from the daring stylistic gesture at the play’s center: Next door to an uptight mixed-race couple and their daughter, a clan of minstrel-show stereotypes moves in, headed by Zip Coon (Eric Jordan Young). The desperate-for-success black professor (Chris McKinney) and his deep-in-denial white wife (Birgit Huppuch) are easy targets for his wiles; their rebellious daughter (Danielle Davenport) and Zip’s anti-stereotype nephew Jim (Brandon Gill) quickly find common ground.
These two orders of theatrical being can’t really engage dramatically. Searching for ways to make them do so, and not helped by Niegel Smith’s sluggish direction, Jacobs-Jenkins flails, repeating himself, belaboring the predictable, and scattering his narrative threads. He has confronted, but not yet sorted out, the spiritual dilemma underlying his stylistic problem; his willingness to confront is the play’s best sign of promise. His five principals all give strong, affecting performances; McKinney’s ulcerated angst is especially harrowing.
Resolutely non-confrontational, Andrew Bovell, author of When the Rain Stops Falling (Newhouse Theater), spends astonishing amounts of stage time dodging his story’s central dilemma, about the damage fathers do to sons and its possible repair. An elaborately layered puzzle, leaping across decades from one set of characters to another, its scenes full of ingenious verbal echoes, Bovell’s script is enormously clever—”too clever by half,” as the British say. His efforts to avoid supplying key pieces of information may mislead you into thinking that his central events don’t make sense, or cause them to strike you as hopelessly contrived. David Cromer’s direction, locking tautly into Bovell’s ornate setup, gets solid performances, particularly from Kate Blumberg and Richard Topol. But the constant downpour of Bovell’s ingenuity dampens the good they do.