Long before Ferguson or even Selma, the civil rights movement hit Alabama in 1931, when nine black teenagers were incorrectly jailed for raping two white women on a train. The case jumped back into the public eye when The Scottsboro Boys premiered on Broadway for a critically acclaimed but brief run in 2010. SpeakEasy Stage is now performing the musical, which has been extended through Nov. 26 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. We chatted with director Paul Daigneault ahead of the show.
What drew you to stage The Scottsboro Boys this season?
I had heard about The Scottsboro Boys when it first played Broadway, and thought that it should have had a longer life. It was met with a lot of controversy, and even protests, over its structure, which replicates a minstrel show, and its use of blackface during the climax of the show. I think a lot of people at that time objected to the conceit without really understanding what John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composers, were using it for. It’s a confrontational show, that really forces the audience to engage with and think about the way that these events fit into the history of race in America. It tells the historical, true story of nine young black men falsely accused and jailed, but it also doesn’t forget that the reasons that happened to them are still very present today.
How easy is it to draw parallels between the incident in the play and recent incidents across the country?
Too easy, unfortunately. In a lot of ways, the show feels even more immediate to today than I think it might have when it first premiered. People wanted it to be a historical document, but it’s really very grounded in the present-day, and I think that theatre-goers are more ready and willing to engage with its ideas now than they even might have been ten years ago. Black Lives Matter and other public protests and expressions have put systemic racism and the justice system at the forefront of people’s minds, and this show hits on all those ideas.
It’s 85 years later, and we’re still discussing this. How does that make you feel?
Sad and angry, but hopeful. Nothing will change until we can be honest with ourselves about where we’ve been as a country, and where we want to go.
Since the play premiered, some of the boys were posthumously pardoned—82 years later. Is that addressed at all in the play?
There is a rundown moment at the end of the play, where the characters let the audience know what their lives were like after the ending. The pardons are included, but it mostly just serves to underline the tragedy of the story. None of these men made it out of the experience fully. Their lives were hugely, irreversibly impacted, and often destroyed, by this injustice they were forced to endure. It makes the pardons seem small, in comparison, even though they were obviously a critical step forward.
Is there a particular scene that really resonates for you as a director?
There are a number of moments throughout the play where the characters become agents of change, and they always hit me hard. Their resilience in the face of so much adversity is really inspiring, and those are the moments I especially can’t wait to dig into with the stellar cast we’ve assembled.
What are you hoping the audience takes away from Scottsboro Boys?
I hope that the audience leaves with a deeper understanding of the way these issues still resonate today, and how even systems that are perceived as liberal and progressive, like theatre, can contribute to the same problems of racism and oppression. I also want them to leave energized and hopeful, though: there is a long way to go, but we’re farther along than we were before. We just have to keep working.