John Kander and Fred Ebb – masters of the cabaret satire – delivered a sucker punch with this their last show together. The story of the Scottsboro nine shamefully redefined the sickness at the heart of American society when racial hatred was at its its most virulent. And as if to rub our noses in the sordid incredulity of it all they invite us not to come to the cabaret or even be complicit in the sleazy consequences of all that jazz but rather to Cake Walk our way to the Minstrel show where the Scottsboro Boys will kick up their heels and bang their tambourines while their presiding puppeteer, the whiter than white Interlocutor (an horrifically genial Julian Glover), turns the grotesque parody of “black face” on its head and cynically commandeers Forrest McClendon and Coleman Domingo to unwittingly assume the identities of their white persecutors.
Kander and Ebb’s songs strut and sizzle through the action (hell, let’s celebrate the Electric Chair) not so much picking up cues as creating them – a piquant soundtrack of southern spice circa.1930s from a band with edge and a whole lot of attitude (MD Robert Scott). The caustic joviality of Susan Stroman’s kick-ass staging hits its mark with unerring precision and as the insanity of the statistics start to mount so does the disbelief that American social history could ever have brought humanity so low. There’s an unsettling close harmony number “Southern Days” which starts out like a gentle parody of well-being – very much the white man’s perspective of the Deep South as befitting the Interlocutor’s special request – but casually (shockingly) twists on itself with visions of burning crosses and dangling bodies.
There’s also one achingly beautiful ballad, “Go Back Home”, movingly attended by Kyle Stratliffe’s dignified Haywood Patterson whose creed “I don’t tell people stories. I tell the truth” is the most supreme irony of all in that it is his voice that eventually shines through the decades – the voice of an illiterate who refused to trade admission of guilt for freedom but rather who found himself the words to carry his truth for all eternity. The Scottsboro Boys were exonerated only this year for a rape they never committed but far more deafening in its condemnation than this belated apologia is the silent figure of The Lady who pervades the narrative of David Thompson’s book like an embodiment of black pride and only gathers herself to utter in the final moments of the piece. Her words – as few as they are emphatic – are the rewriting of history.