It has been an absolute thrill bringing The Scottsboro Boys to London where it has been embraced so magnificently by UK audiences and critics alike.
This show is a major passion of mine and I feel I have absorbed Haywood Patterson’s mandate not to let the story be forgotten. Haywood learned to read and write in prison and wrote the truth in a book during his escape. What happened to the young men who became known as the “Scottsboro Boys” in the 1930s is considered one of the greatest travesties of justice in the US. They endured physical abuse, verbal lynching in the press and total injustice. They would have been lynched immediately except for the brave efforts to keep them alive including the work of the NAACP and many Communists and Jews. True, their case was turned into a kind of a circus with everyone wanting to use their story for their own agendas, but if that hadn’t happened the boys certainly would have been executed. In the mix were heroes who risked their careers and lives to tell the truth such as Judge Horton of Scottsboro and the Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibowitz from New York. From an incident that stemmed from a scuffle on a train came the trials that helped to inspire the Civil Rights movement and led to two landmark Supreme Court rulings mandating proper legal representation and the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. These rulings are still being referred to today and even cited in cases in the UK, as Geoffrey Robertson, QC mentioned in his recent post-show discussion at the theatre.
To take this dark event and turn it into a musical that entertains, moves people to tears and laughter, and inspires change is a brilliant achievement only made possible by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Susan Stroman and David Thompson. They have brought the story to life in a way that gets into your soul so that you cannot forget. Their glorious music uplifts you, the dance delights you and the story stays with you and haunts you so that you must do something with it. To me, the moment near the end of the show when the cast sings the powerful melody Goodbye to the Scottsboro Boys with such fierceness is one of the greatest moments in musical theatre. The music, lyrics and choreography are a solid punch, grabbing you in the gut, lifting you up and not letting you go.
Added to this is the wondrous interplay of history and theatre that has happened over the past year. Patterson wrote a book so the story would not be forgotten. Kander and Ebb then created a vehicle to bring the story to the public so it would not be forgotten. And the musical has in fact aided in the passing of the Scottsboro Boys Act in Alabama this past April exonerating the boys. When the Scottsboro Boys got into my heart, I felt I had to do something with it. I got involved with the Scottsboro Boys Museum to help founder Shelia Washington in her determination to carry the story on. I was honored to receive the key to the city and was honored to speak April 18th, 2013 when The Scottsboro Boys Act was signed by Governor Bentley in Scottsboro. Then, to have the show playing at the Young Vic when the pardons of the last three Scottsboro Boys was achieved in November was an unbelievable experience. We even had a group of people from the Alabama Government Tourism Bureau fly to London to see the show. (And they loved it.) This show is a part of history and the way the actors bringing life to their characters in every glorious, brilliant performance is a tribute to the Scottsboro Boys and what they endured. The slide at the end of the show announcing the pardoning of the boys 82 years after their arrests just grabs one’s heart.
I am just so, so proud of the Young Vic and the entire company for what has been achieved. In 1932, Ava Wright, the mother of Roy and Andy, traveled to the UK to build international support for the boys. Now, many decades later, the show has done just that. People return to see it again and again and get more out of it each time. It is a true blessing for me to have brought the show here, and to have worked with the people at the Young Vic who have done such an astounding job giving life to this show. So I want to say thank you to David Lan and the entire Young Vic family. Thanks to London for embracing us and may the story continue to be told. May we all learn from Haywood Patterson and never let the truth be forgotten.