The Plot: Alabama 1931 – 9 “Negros” travelling in a train are wrongly accused of raping two white women. The police put them in jail and at court they are found guilty. Year after year, they try different courts, but the verdict is always the same, even when one of the women tells the truth.
The Show: Do you know what a Minstrel Show is? Well, it’s a show that “uses white actors to portray African Americans in ways that are negative and disrespectful”. Typically these shows used a semicircle of chairs, a kind of an Emcee and two comic characters that interrupted the show with their sketches. That’s the structure chosen by director/choreographer Susan Stroman to put on this musical.
The set of this musical is made basically of chairs and thanks to the always very inventive Susan Stroman these are transformed, with the help of the cast, into a train, a prison, a court room and everything that it’s needed. The energetic dance numbers also take place among or at the top of the chairs; the dance here isn’t elegant, but rather brutal and that works perfectly with the context of the story. Stroman manages to tell a very dramatic story as a dark musical comedy, making us laugh and involving us emotionally with the characters. She also inverts the rules of the Minstrel Show, using black actors playing exaggerated white roles.
The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb isn’t among their best work, but even so is very enjoyable and at the first accords we feel like we’re inside a real minstrel show. There’s a contagious “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey!” opening the show; Stroman has a full day with “Commencing in Chattanooga” and “Electric Chair”; “Go Back Home” is a poignant ballad powerfully sung by Kyle Scatliffe and the company; “Never Too Late” is a funny number and “You Can’t Do Me” is the most Kander & Ebb song of the score.
The Cast: Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon, as the two comics, lively play very different roles and enjoy doing it. As the “leader” of the “Negros”, Kyle Scatliffe has a very strong presence and is the emotional core of the musical. On the funnier side, James T. Lane and Christian Dante White are delicious as the two white ladies. There’s also Dawn Hope, the only female cast member, who says a lot with her silence and eyes. The only white actor is Julian Glover who plays the Emcee as a pathetic, racist silly man. One last word for the other 6 actors, who all dance, sing and act with talent.
This isn’t a big musical production, but a plain and very entertaining one that ends with a bitter note that, unfortunately, still echoes in our modern times. If it wasn’t this musical this poor 9 guys will still be seen as guilty of a crime that they didn’t commit, but thanks to this show they were finally absolved.
Cast: Kyle Sctaliffe, Christian Dante White, James T. Lane, Adebayo Bolaji, Idriss Kargbo, Jorden Shaw, Carl Spencer, Clinton Roane, Emile Ruddock, Colman Domingo, Forrest McClendon, Julian Glover, Dawn Hope.
Creative Team: Music by John Kander • Lyrics by Fred Ebb • Book by David Thompson • Choreography by Susan Stroman • Directed by Susan Stroman
Photos by Richard Hubert Smith, Henry DiRocco and Alastair Muir
My Rate: 7 (from 1 to 10)