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Minstrels, With Irony

Two high-steppin’ reasons to see The Scottsboro Boys.

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Joshua Henry, left, and Jeremy Gumbs.  

'I can’t really explain the shock,” says 12-year-old Jeremy Gumbs, about the first time he had to put on blackface for his role in The Scottsboro Boys—the last musical written by the team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb—in which the story of nine innocent teenagers jailed for rape in thirties Alabama is told through minstrelsy. But a scant few months later, he’s able to justify the choice almost as well as Kander and Ebb could: “Nobody really wants to see blackface, but it has to be that way. If not, it’s just going to be a regular show. It’s going to be a lie.”

Gumbs’s Eugene Williams is one pillar of the show: the cute, exuberant, and frightened kid who brings home to the audience the absurdity of the charges and the enormity of the injustice. The other is Haywood Patterson, the righteous Scottsboro boy who wrote his story for posterity, played by Joshua Henry. “I’m not Mr. Brooding,” says the upbeat and laid-back Henry, last seen on Broadway in American Idiot. Yet at 26, he finds himself playing the most righteous of the boys, the still center of a “roller coaster of a musical” shot through with minstrelsy’s broad comedy, cross-dressing, and pranks. “[Director] Susan Stroman is helping me trust the stillness,” says Henry. “But sometimes it’s hard playing against people who are dressed like clowns and have a water gun pointed at you.”

Within the peerless ensemble, each of them stops the show: Gumbs in “Electric Chair,” a loose-limbed dance meant to dramatize Eugene’s fear of execution (you’d never know he started taking dance classes only ten months ago, on the tail end of his world tour as The Lion King’s Young Simba); and Henry in “Nothin’, ” a scorching, excruciatingly slow shuck-and-jive that focuses Haywood’s rage into meter. Both performances walk the exceedingly fine line of Kander and Ebb’s best work, maestros of light-within-darkness in shows like Cabaret and Chicago. Tragic as the story is, “it’s got to entertain them, too,” says Gumbs with an easy grin. “Otherwise those rows are going to be empty.”


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