John McWhorter

The Great White Guilt on the Great White Way

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The Scottsboro Boys playing at the Lyceum got some unwanted – more or less – publicity a little while ago when members of New York City’s Freedom Party picketed it for its framing of the plot in minstrel show format.

The minstrel part is, in fact, the least interesting thing about a show whose main problem is being just plain hokey – which makes it as questionable to treat it as serious business as it is to picket it for the minstrelsy. This puts in a certain light the lusty, self-congratulatory ovations the show is getting.

There is, actually, a certain discomfort in that the minstrel pizazz is intended also as present-day entertainment, complete with high-stepping choreography and snapping tambourines. However, the device is meant as ironic commentary, most used to lampoon various white characters. If the protesters were under the impression that anyone would simply do a minstrel show on Broadway in 2010, then they are unaware of the liberal politics of American theatre and the refractional, almost Cubist substrate of much of it. We can be thankful that their bleak suspicions are unwarranted and move on.

And ideally, we would move on to a piece that grappled with the real story of the Scottsboro boys, a rich one driven by the conflicting impulses of desperate people with conflicting agendas. But the musical paints it in such broad strokes that it’s hard to engage with it on any substantial level. Two sometime hookers riding the same freight train as nine black boys accuse them of rape to evade a morals charge. The boys are put on death row, one hooker recants, but juries still refuse to acquit them.

May we allow that in 2010 this alone cannot classify as grounds for a whole evening’s lesson? An alternate-universe treatment of the story could teach much, but David Thompson’s version has starkly delineated heroes and villains, where the whites are flatly unsavory cartoons. Because this latter is done in broad minstrel fashion, it qualifies on one level as a kind of ironic layering – the black actors doing the white fools in a kind of “whiteface” as it were (Forrest McClendon’s New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz is especially fine). But it also means that the proceedings become almost childish.

I submit that America, for all of its non-post-racialness, has gotten at least far enough on race that something as bluntly horrific as the Scottsboro tragedy no longer qualifies as something to “make us think.” Yes, we should consider the role racism can play when considering a black person on trial. But the facts in a case like that of Mumia Abu-Jamal, wherever one falls on it, are vastly more ambiguous than the Scottsboro ones. On O.J. Simpson, well, you know.

The piece is overall very Norman Lear. One imagines Bea Arthur’s Maude urging her friends to get a ticket. One sequence has the minstrel interlocutor figure (the one white character) forcing the boys to sing a spiritual, with the boys slyly inserting some sarcastic verses to subvert the moment. The audience goes “Mmmm.” Oh, wait, do I have this right? – is the point that old-time whites were wrong in seeing oppressed blacks as happy folks? Now, there’s an up-to-the-minute insight.

Terry Teachout nailed it in his bracingly honest review of the show: “a nightly act of self-congratulation in which the right-thinking members of the audience preen themselves complacently at the thought of their own enlightenment.” The authors try to insert hints of ambiguity, such as one boy being a fink at one moment out of desperation. But what about that in real life, the boy the hero character is based on, Haywood Patterson,  also falsely implicated some of the others on the stand? Too complicated, I suppose. But why, then, were even Rodgers and Hammerstein comfortable with antiheroes like Carousel’s Billy Bigelow?

Plus the Scottsboro score isn’t even much. One of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s least celebrated scores, Steel Pier, is Porgy and Bess compared to this one. Time passes for show music writers: the Scottsboro score is perhaps analogous to Cole Porter’s Aladdin or Jule Styne’s The Red Shoes. I would barely suspect Kander and Ebb had written this score if not told. About an hour in, it occurred to me that at least there was no black female character who was going to do a gospelly number where she sings loud and ends with a long, high note. This is such a sure, cheap score that musical directors now jimmy it into shows that didn’t have such moments originally, such as in the “Brotherhood of Man” number in the How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying revival in the nineties and in “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in the Guys and Dolls revival last year. But wouldn’t you know, in Scottsboro one of the black men pulls it while doing drag as one of the prostitutes, tossing in a 30-second brassy high note that whips the audience into a swoon.

The issue here is not that Broadway economics require dumbing down. David Mamet’s Race just finished a healthy run, and there were more adult dealings with race in ten minutes of that play than in all 105 of The Scottsboro Boys. Nor is it that musicals must paint by numbers. Ragtime, despite a certain theme-park blockiness, includes whites who grow and gives us a black hero who succumbs to a degree of obsession and megalomania.

A while ago, George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum parodied the plangent “Mama-on-the-couch-play” of the Raisin in the Sun sort. That seemed to go over well. There is now another category of black play that has aged into mannerism, the “Racism-Used-To-Be-Worse” play. Not that they shouldn’t exist, anymore than I would wish the eclipse of Tyler Perry’s dear, tacky Mama-on-the-couch plays and the movies drawn from them. The issue is how we classify such things and how seriously we take them. This business of whites sitting at a Hanna-Barbera version of the Scottsboro case pretending it’s Ibsen has got to go. It’s self-indulgent, condescending, and fake.

If nobody pretends, then fine. America can now make a hit out of a musical like Memphis that dumbs down interracial romance, such that in the fifties deep South a black woman and a white man can carry on despite there being less chemistry between actors Chad Kimball and Montego Glover than between George Bush and Aretha Franklin. But in the end, no one is under the impression that Memphis is really “about” anything but good old-fashioned mellerdrammer and a pleasantly evanescent score.

People embracing The Scottsboro Boys as serious think of themselves as ahead of the curve. And as characters in Mad Men in about 1961, they would have been, when, as Teachout puts it, “watching a stageful of black men performing a ‘comic’ minstrel show about so hideous an event would have stung like a flogging.” But today, what would really be ahead of the curve is being honest enough to admit that you do not need to be taught that America of 1931 was nakedly racist and racism is bad. Ahead of the curve would also be not suspending your faculties of judgment on a show whose paint-by-numbers essence you would barely even tolerate on a cruise ship if it weren’t about black people.

That’s just it. If this thing were about Haymarket or Tiananmen Square we’d never have heard of it. The only reason The Scottsboro Boys has made it to the Great White Way is the Great White Guilt.

 

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