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Race & Scottsboro Boys

Race & Scottsboro Boys

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Published by Tom Matlack
Facing protests, Broadway production The Scottsboro Boys will close this Sunday. Tom Matlack argues that the show was misunderstood.
Facing protests, Broadway production The Scottsboro Boys will close this Sunday. Tom Matlack argues that the show was misunderstood.

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Published by: Tom Matlack on Dec 16, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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‘Can We Tell It Like It Really
Happened?’: On Race and ‘The
Scottsboro Boys’
Facing protests, Broadway production 
TheScottsboro Boys
will close this Sunday. Tom Matlack argues that the show was misunderstood.
When I was 8, while my classmates werelearning their multiplication tables, I was thrown into the backof a paddy wagon and dragged into court. My dad—aQuaker activist—and I had committed civil disobedience ona crisp fall day in Western Massachusetts.As a little boy who just needed to go to the bathroom, I tried,futilely, to take a leak into a single, seatless toilet in front of acell full of men. Those few hours behind bars scared me. Ididn’t want to go back. While many others who had run-inswith the law at such a tender age went on to serve time, Inever stepped foot in prison again as a young man.But a quarter-century after my childhood arrest, I
go backto jail repeatedly, this time as a visitor. I went to South BayHouse of Corrections in Boston, a maximum-security prisonin Connecticut, and ultimately, Sing Sing. Sitting with a roomfull of lifers, deep in the bowels of that stone structure “upthe river,” two things struck me: the inmates were nearly allblack, and they looked so young. When they went aroundthe room to introduce themselves, it brought tears to myeyes to hear that even the youngest-looking boys had beeninside for more than a decade.Nationally, unemployment among black men ages 16–24stands at 35 percent. Sixty-five percent of black boys growup in fatherless homes. Of the prison population of 2,424,279 inmates, 44 percent—more than a million—are
black; there are 919,000 black men enrolled in college. If current trends continue, one in three black male babies borntoday will end up in prison.We Americans ignore the obvious because it is far toouncomfortable to consider: Martin Luther King’s dream is stillfar from being realized.
 Into this myth of racial progress enters
The Scottsboro Boys
,a Broadway production that debuted on October 31 at theLyceum Theater. (Full disclosure: I helped finance the play,in honor of my parents who travelled to Mississippi in theFreedom Summer of 1964, and to honor the African-American inmates with whom I have spent time in ancienthuman cages like Sing Sing.)
The Scottsboro Boys
, about the nine young men who werefalsely accused and sentenced to death for raping two whitewomen in 1931, provides a screen upon which our unresolved racism is uncomfortably projected. It sticks itsfinger into the still-open wound that is race in this country,forcing the audience to watch the boys dance and sing in aminstrel format as they struggle to find their true voice.The show flips the traditional minstrel show on its head,using it to humanize, rather than caricaturize, theparticipants. In the opening moments of the play, HaywoodPatterson, the eldest Scottsboro boy, asks, “Can we tell itlike it really happened?
This time, can we tell the truth?”And by the final scene of the play, the blackface is gone. Theminstrel show is over. And we see real men telling a realstory of injustice and racism.Watching
Scottsboro Boys
, I was made painfully awareof my own racism. I judge people by their skin color, their 

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This was without a doubt one of the best Broadway shows I've seen in a long time. Glad to have caught it before it went away.
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Facing protests, Broadway play, "The Scottsboro Boys" will close this Sunday. What do you think of controversy surrounding theater, music,, etc.?
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