Mark Stein's ambitious dramatization of the infamous political circus surrounding nine African-American boys unjustly imprisoned in 1931 Alabama was reportedly inspired in part by a 1937 vaudeville show featuring four of the boys following their release from prison. Stein's offbeat docudrama spans nearly five decades, employing a heady blend of vaudevillian shtick, Brechtian presentational techniques, caustic satire, and heart-wrenching human drama. His piece clearly overreaches, yet director Ben Bradley imbues the Los Angeles premiere mounting with a dazzling array of thought-provoking vignettes.
A dramaturgical Thomas Guide might be helpful in navigating through the characters and plot developments stuffed into two and a half hours. In March 1931, aboard a train traveling through northern Alabama, a young white man stepped on the hand of 18-year-old black man Haywood Patterson (a superb Edwin Morrow), sparking a brawl between black and white youths. The four black boys involved—and five who weren't—ultimately faced trumped-up charges of raping two white passengers, Ruby Bates (Sheilagh M. Brooks) and Victoria Price (Bernadette L. Speakes), who turned out to be prostitutes. All nine boys were sentenced to Death Row. The event remained a media circus for many years during seven retrials, two landmark Supreme Court rulings, and the staggered releases of the defendants between 1937 and 1950. A sizable portion of the play involves the machinations of two opposing forces to leverage the boys' plight toward their own advantages: the American Communist Party and the NAACP.
Gender-bending casting is used in a few cases, and, among other striking theatrical devices, the all-black cast dons April Chapman's hilariously stylized "flesh"-colored masks when playing white roles—an ingeniously ironic twist to the shameful American legacy of white actors in blackface. There are additional ironies when the hypocritical black NAACP secretary Walter White (Don Richardson) wears the white-man mask and when the juries appear in pure white masks. There's frequent breaking of the fourth wall and fine musical sequences ranging from bluesy ballads to comic olios (superbly accompanied by pianist Tim Davis, music by Harley White Jr.). Thomas A. Brown's atmospheric set recreates an old-fashioned vaudeville stage, complete with curved proscenium arch and a billboard to introduce the acts. The mood is enhanced by Kathi O'Donohue's extraordinary lighting, Nalia Aladin-Sanders' costumes, and Kurt Thum's sound effects.
The exemplary ensemble effort is too balanced to cite favorites, but Speakes enjoys the juiciest range of roles, including the terrified 13-year-old prisoner Eugene Williams, the conniving hooker Victoria as both young wench and old hag, and a Scottsboro mother. Three of the actors playing Scottsboro boys have a field day with their white characters: Gilbert Glenn Brown's shark-like Communist attorney Joe Brodsky, Timothy Lopez Rogers' maligned Jewish attorney Sam Liebowitz, and Yaphet Enge's razzle-dazzle prosecutor Thomas Knight. Beyond the bells-and-whistles staging and ever-urgent issues of institutional bigotry and political corruption, the show's most indelible impact derives from its shattering images of scared and grossly mistreated young men arbitrarily thrust from the simple world they know into a hellish world from which there seemed to be no escape.
"Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys," presented by and at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Sept. 27-Nov. 10. $25. (323) 663-1525.