Twelve Years a Slave is the second story about US race to triumph in the UK in the past year. Last year a US Musical about the Scottsboro Boys took London by storm. The show is nominated for 7 Olivier awards (the awards ceremony is on the 13 April 2014) and I hope it wins every single one. It was a tour de force any way you slice it. But it was also sure to be well attended as the British are generally fascinated by the American race question.
I spend a lot of time talking to American students about researching a British issue from a British point of view before making a judgement. It is only fair that I give the same advice (well after the fact) to some of the British newspaper critics of the Scottsboro Boys whose commentaries showed an embarrassing lack of intellectual curiosity. They did not research– they made assumptions! After all, they have read about Martin Luther King! Although the critics loved the Scottsboro Boys they did not quite understand it. The story is still very much rooted in a foreign culture so many of the nuances escaped them and nuance can be everything in race issues. The format was a challenging one in light of the topic. All the more reason to research or speak to Americans in London – who are not thin on the ground. Since they did not, I will try and help out by offering some guidance. First, the errors.
The Guardian – Julian Glover brings masterly subtlety to his role as a doddery Uncle Sam figure.
Wrong. Julian Glover (the sole white cast member) did not portray an Uncle Sam figure as any American – black or white – could have told them. Wrong clothes and wrong physique. He is a southern colonel type as in Kentucky Fried. Big difference.
Daily Mail – It is possible to find the style of the production both ingenious and frustrating. Some of the white folk being portrayed are decidedly bad sorts. Audiences might enjoy taking against these characters. With all the larky satire, it becomes harder to hate them.
This is not To Kill A Mockingbird so hating the “bad sorts” (and I do hope that is British understatement) does not appear to be the point – more on that later.
FT – The show is, however, so busy celebrating black men that it scarcely notices its preoccupation with black men; even the female accusers are played by members of the Boys. The company includes one female member, who gets a single line at the end; she plays Rosa Parks.
Oh dear. I would scarcely call it a “celebration” of black men. However, there is an excellent reason that black men portray the accusing white women.
And finally the Guardian again The essence of such shows was that white actors blacked up to reinforce African-American stereotypes. Here a company of black actors, supervised by a white Interlocutor, reverse the process to reveal the rooted prejudice at the heart of The Scottsboro Boys story.
Close but no cigar. Although apparently begun by whites, black performers also put on blackface in minstrel shows so this fiction is imitating reality. (Incidentally, in Day Of Absence a play from 1965 by black playwright Douglas Turner Ward, an all white cast of characters is played by black actors in white face.) Here is what Mel Watkins an African-American expert on black humour has to say about minstrel shows. By the 1860s black performers [were] going on the stage themselves and performing in a similar manner. Because basically when the black performers did minstrel shows, they were doing the same acts that whites had done before. It was necessary for them — it was necessary for them to do that to be on stage. Otherwise, they would not have been allowed there.
Classic Minstrel Shows followed a pattern (which the Scottsboro Boys producers explained.) The performers sat in a semi-circle with an “interlocutor” at the center. The interlocutor controlled the proceedings like a master of ceremonies calling for the performance of the “cake walk” and saying “Gentlemen Be Seated.” Once the actors in the Scottsboro Boys are on stage this is how the play begins and all the actors politely sit down. Minstrel shows usually contained two “clowns” on either end of the semi-circle, they are Mr Tambo (tambourine) and Mr Bones (spoons or bone instruments). Their job was to infuse some excitement into the show by interrupting the proceedings. The Scottsboro boys have these characters and they play most of the “bad sorts.” So Minstrel shows like their European antecedents were entertaining and ridiculous. This is why in addition to the fact that some of the former “Scottsboro boys” actually joined a minstrel show, the medium for this horrific part of our history is appropriate. How many times have we used the phrases “show trial“ and “mockery of justice”? Well that is what their trials were, so why not make that perfectly clear with a minstrel show? What the critics do not mention is that the acting by the men who play the Scottsboro boys is deadly serious as if this were indeed a straight play. And that it why it makes sense. This play is not from an audience perspective it is from the perspective of the victims who are not black women but black men. This is why they play even the white women in addition to the fact that minstrel shows were normally all male. The other perfectly obvious reason is that in the actual event the two women were dressed like men so they would not be recognized as women while travelling.
Anyone exposed throughout their life to the history of court cases like the Scottsboro Boys (and there were many, not to mention the lynchings with no accusations or trial) cannot help the feeling on some level that Black Americans (and Jewish Americans) in the American South right up to the 1960s lived in a kind of horrific circus nightmare. This is not just because of the absurdity of what Southern whites were then pleased to call “justice.” What the British critics and audience members probably did not understand is that there were postcards of lynchings. If they occurred in daylight white people came from miles around and had family picnics. This was a form of ghastly entertainment.
Against this background the minstrel formula is eminently suitable. We have a courtly Southern gentleman who stands for the stuffy and rigid traditional Southern society where blacks live a routine existence, and spend their days being told what they can and cannot do – “gentlemen be seated”. Despite their oppressions and endless hours of hard labour – or no labour and therefore no food — they are also expected to put on a happy face. Thus the commands “cakewalk” and “sing a song.” This restricted, routine and violently repressed society is disrupted by the clowns (of course) playing the sheriff and his deputy who arrest them. One critic wonders if the play is fair to the sheriff who in real life stopped a lynch mob and was murdered by the clan in retaliation. That’s hard to tell. Rough justice had been a longstanding problem in the United States for sheriffs holding both white and black prisoners and they did have a job to do in protecting all prisoners. However it’s a leap to assume that because a sheriff did not want his prisoners lynched that he behaved with justice, after all he arrested them on no evidence.
Personally, I think the play is hard on their lawyer, who is played by Mr Bones and in life was clearly dedicated and obviously under physical threat as were all lawyers in such cases. The play alludes to this with a 30 second appearance by body guards. On the other hand, there is another stock character in the minstrel shows, a Mr Zip Coon who was supposed to be a free black man who put on airs and acted above his station. If we return to the idea that this play is written is from the point of view of the victims then Mr Zip Coon as the lawyer is logical. To young men, justifiably distrustful of whites and as southerners themselves, would not a fast talking New Yorker proposing to take on the Southern establishment appear arrogant, at least at first?
Prof Watkins notes that as black men became minstrels themselves they gradually changed the way the shows were done. This too is reflected in the Scottsboro Boys by the growing defiance of the black community represented by the one black female character and by the Scottsboro Boys themselves. To the displeasure of the interlocutor they add words about burning crosses to the old familiar songs, refuse to do the cakewalk and eventually wipe off their false smiling faces and walk out. But there is no question that this is not a triumph. Some of Neon lights of the Scottsboro Boys go out so we read the “Soro boys.”
The Express critic called it ultimately a “feel bad” show due to the subject matter. You would never have known from the audience when I saw it. To my horror they had applauded after every single song including the electric chair sequence which reflected the real life nightmares of one of the victims. At the curtain call we gave them the standing ovation they deserved but the faces of the actors were sober and so was mine and those of a few others. As for everyone else, they were smiling and clapping and excited. They seemed to be thinking “I came to have a ‘feel good’ evening and thanks to their ingenuity I did! Well done them!” As for me, I wanted to say to those people “Be seated.”