By Mark Stein
Music direction & Lyrics by Harley White, Jr
Directed by Michael Menendian
At Raven Theatre, Chicago
Theatrically endearing play with music and dance ripe as a satirical retelling of a tragic true story.
Kudos to Raven Theatre for producing such an adventurous theatrical piece! Mark Stein’s Direct from Death Row – The Scottsboro Boys is a play with music and dance that is a strongly satirical retelling of nine African-American teenagers falsely accused in 1931 of raping two white woman on a train in Alabama. This dramatic tragedy covered many years in the 1930’s as Southern racism and injustice collided with Northern liberalism as celebrity lawyers, civil right organizations and even the communist party exploited the Scottsboro Boys for their own agendas.
In this creative production, we hear and meet the nine Scottsboro Boys as they tell their story while also presenting their unique personalities and varied reactions to the numerous trials,convictions and sentences of death over the years as racism and injustice kept them incarcerated for years. Rather than using a pure narrative documentary style, playwright Mark Stein uses the framework of old time vaudeville to theatricality emphasize the biting satire of the injustice of this tragic story. Upon Ray Toler’s set, an old theatre stage complete with old backdrops, the nine players, six men and three women narrative sing old traditional tunes and dance soft shoe dances complete with straw hats and canes usually in grotesque ‘white-faced masks’ to cut deep into the satire of old southern traditions. The entire cast are African-Americans who nimbly play white folks, have women playing young boys as they exhibit an amazing set of theatrical skills ranging from dramatic acting, to razor-sharp comic timing to wonderful dancing and effective singing. David Knezz’a eerie mask design together with the over-the-top movements deepened the satire level most effectively.
Each of the nine players: Breon Arzell (Willie Roberson and others), Anna Dauzvardis (Ozie Powell and others), Brandon Greenhouse (Andy White & Walter White), Tamarus Harvell (Clarence Norris & Judge Horton), Andrew Malone (Charlie Weems & Sam Leibowitz), Katrina D. Richard (Eugene & others, Charli Williams (Leroy & others) with Kevin Patterson (as Haywood Patterson, the main narrator with the fabulous Semaj Miller (Olen Montgomery and the main vaudevillian General Knight) – had their moments to sparkle as this gripping story unfolds in its strong and engaging theatricality. These extreme devices deepened the power of the destructiveness of the events on each of the nine.
General Knight’s Semaj Miller with help from Andrew Malone and Breon Arzell teamed up to sing and dance to an assortment of souther traditional songs such as “Down by the Riverside,” “We shall Not Be Mover,” “Hey Ho Nobody Home.” Add several Stephen Foster tunes including “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Oh, Susannah” with the Irish traditional “Danny Boy” and the Jewish song “Hava Naglis” and the satire runs deep.
The comic relief and the heavy satire makes not only for rich entertainment but makes it easier for us to cope with the utter injustice of America in the 1930’s. How better to dramatize and tell an important story that through strong narrative with loads of song and dance? It sure works here. Raven Theatre and director Michael Menendian should be proud of the terrific production. They prove once more that smaller non-Equity troupes often scoop the big regional theatres with innovative important shows like Direct from Death Row – The Scottsboro Boys! Don’t miss this gem!
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, call 773-338-2177,www.raventheatre.com, tickets $42, seniors $37, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2hours, 30 minutes with intermission, through November 14, 2015