In 1931, nine African-American boys were accused and convicted of a crime that not only they were innocent of but that was later proven to have never occurred. One of the most heinous miscarriages of justice in US history, it took over 80 years for the boys to be officially exonerated.
With a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the masterminds behind Chicago and Cabaret), The Scottsboro Boys is chillingly told in the fashion of a minstrel show, a controversial choice that was protested regularly during the show’s run on Broadway. Beginning on Oct 21, Scottsboro will make its long-awaited New England premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Here, actor Brandon Green, a recent Elliot Norton Award winner for his revelatory performance in An Octoroon last season at Company One, talks about the importance of this musical, its use of minstrelsy, and how his hometown of Selma informs the artist he is today.
Would you call The Scottsboro Boys an important musical?
Very important. In the 85 years since their trial began, things are still in the same state, and I’m hoping that people can come in and see that and make the correlations. It is still very much a thing today, being assumed guilty before innocent, in a lot of cases dealing with young black men and women. This show is very poignant.
Do you think that The Scottsboro Boys and An Octoroon both have similarities in the devices they use to tell their stories?
Yes. And I truly feel like An Octoroon prepared me for this—and Mr. Burns, in many ways. I look at the melodrama in An Octoroon as the framework for the painting in very much the same way that the minstrel show in Scottsboro Boys is the frame of the painting for these young men’s story. It tells the story in a very beautiful way.
The minstrel show not only brings the guards down, but it also exploits the men on stage even further. It is often very hard to watch, in the best way possible.
Yes, in the best way possible. I want to blame and/or thank Summer L. Williams for encouraging me and enduring me into some very difficult theater over the years. This show is just as hard to watch as it is hard to do. Beyond the exploitation, it’s a way for the story to get out, and so it’s serving a very significant purpose, I feel.
And you’re from Selma, a place of extraordinary significance in the civil rights movement. Do you think about that when you’re working on shows like this?
Every single time. Part of the reason that I wanted to jump in on this show is because it is set in my home state, but it’s also a duty and a charge. My great-grandmother, Jessie Lee Johnson, and her friends rode around town and performed skits to get people to vote. I didn’t know it was in my blood like that. Growing up down there, I lived on Annie Lee Cooper Avenue. Oprah played her in Selma and she was one of my great-grandmother’s best friends. Knowing her story and how she knocked out Sheriff Jim Clark and then was beaten and thrown in jail … I grew up with all this. There’s so much pride in being from there. It’s my onus to tell these stories and to get this out and to do it in a way that does my grandma proud and does my hometown proud, as well.
There’s also an added layer of fragility because you’re doing this show about this great injustice, and yet here we have someone who is a few feet away from the presidency who doesn’t have respect for minorities and people of color. It’s very frightening that it seems like we will always be capable of another Scottsboro Boys.
Yeah. I was thinking to myself earlier this week that depending on how Nov 8 goes, the end of this run will take on entirely new meaning. It goes back to why this show is important: History forgotten is doomed to repeat itself. And then, sometimes, history that we do know still repeats itself. I wonder about the people talking about repealing the 19th Amendment to get women out of the vote, which is crazy. People are actually saying these things, and it’s really disheartening. The people that are buying into it, that’s the scary part.
You’re a self-described “artist for social change.” It seems that Scottsboro Boys falls squarely within that mission.
Oh, yeah. This year really has been a year of making social statements with art. From race and identity in An Octoroon to why the arts and storytelling are important in Mr. Burns to this, which I feel really shows just how important telling these stories is and the things that can come about once you do tell them. Again, 82 years later, these young men were exonerated for their crimes. I think that this show had a big part to play in that. That’s my grandma in me.