Tom Matlack talks to the acclaimed writer about his show and its protesters, the myth of a post-racial era, and dialogue as a force for good.
TOM: As a backdrop, I grew up—my parents don’t like me to admit it—but I grew up in what was basically a commune in Western Massachusetts. My parents were in Mississippi in 1964, very active in the civil rights movement. I went to jail with my dad when I was 8, protesting the Vietnam War. My parents were the real deal. They’re Quakers, so they’re very into civil disobedience and all the like. So the topic of the play is extremely germane to me and to my family and my own life history. And I started the Good Men Project, which has a magazine, a book, a DVD, and a foundation that helps at-risk boys across the country. And what I’m really interested in first is what attracted you to the idea of doing this play.
DAVID: John Kander and Fred Ebb and I have worked on many different projects. One, early on, was called Steel Pier, set in 1931. Also Flora the Red Menace, which was set in 1932. I’ve always been attracted to that particular time in history because it’s a period when so many things crashed together—the economy, society, race, the law—things were about ready to fall apart, blow up. For this play we knew we wanted to tell an American story and we knew we wanted to tell a true story. So we were looking at all the great trials of the last century. That particular trial jumped out at us immediately.
On one level, it’s related to the circus around those trials and what happened—the characters, the different situations, and the way it was approached by not only the media, but by the North and the South. But what was really attractive was the story of the nine boys themselves, because there’s something very compelling about looking at how an innocent person is thrown into jail. What would you do, how would you survive, and how would you try to make sure people listened to you when you said you were innocent? You’ve got nine boys with no intention of ever going into the public spotlight—they just were looking to survive. That idea of what happens when you’re trapped was compelling.
I know Kander and Ebb were drawn to that immediately because it’s very much a part of the stories that they have told in the past, whether it’s the attempt to escape a German cabaret or somebody trying to escape a jail cell in Chicago or in South America; it’s very much a part of the world.
What really became the engine for this is that notion of what happens when it’s easier to believe a lie than it is to change the way you think in order to accept the truth. Because that is a very difficult concept for anyone to understand, especially in America in this day and age, where sometimes it’s just so easy to believe a lie.
TOM: One of the things I find most fascinating about that show is it’s obviously set in a a particular time period, and what it does so brilliantly is to recreate the time period down to the last detail. Yet it’s really talking about us today. It’s looking in the mirror. And so when you were describing the 1930s, the world falling apart—race, economy—I’m like, well, are you talking about 1931 or are you talking about 2010? Because it sounds pretty goddamn familiar.
DAVID: It is exactly the same. We like to believe these issues are behind us and pretend that we’re in a post-racial world. Every once in a while, we start having a conversation as if we were. We have a crazy economy that’s turning left and right, and a lot of people are being thrown off the train. So much of that is still so much a part of our world.
When we started writing this—several years ago—a lot of those issues were at the forefront because we were still in the odd time of George W. Bush. The lies we were battling then—in our minds as we were writing this piece—were lies that were being propagated by Dick Cheney and George Bush, whether it was weapons of mass destruction or why we’re going to start a war or how we’re going to run the government. What resonated with us was the feeling that so many of us were being excused from the national conversation about so many things. We had so many crazy rules going on after 9/11—it was all about the discussion of rights and what we could and couldn’t do, and it seemed like the conversation had been hijacked by a very conservative faction of the world. That’s what our discussion was, when we were sitting around the table, talking. We felt marginalized from the conversation.
Then the first time we did a reading of the show, the very first day of the very first reading, ironically, was the day after Obama was elected, that Wednesday morning. Here you are, you’re sitting with a group of black men in a rehearsal studio and they’re reading the script. And for a second, everybody was so joyous and everybody was coming up on elevators in New York City, talking to everybody. It was as if there had been a seismic shift in the world. For a moment we thought, Is this piece relevant anymore? Have we discovered we’re on the other side of the conversation?
The months passed and we realized quickly that no, what we’re having now is a very veiled discussion. We’re using new words to discuss racism. We’re screaming “You lie!” on the floor of the Senate to a black president because somehow that seems appropriate. As a matter of fact, there’s a line in the show where the sheriff punches Haywood Patterson in the nose and screams, “You lie,” and for me, anyway, it’s a direct reference to that moment a couple of years ago. And we discovered, especially as the politics soured a bit and everything was still so polarized, that much of the discussion was even more acute and pronounced. It’s just that we have new ways to describe things, whether you listen to the Tea Party or Glenn Beck on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial talking about “reclaiming the dream.” That’s just another way to say incredibly racist and divisive statements, and then cover them over with the American flag.
It’s a very confusing time. The discussions that happen when people leave the theater after seeing The Scottsboro Boys resonate because these issues are still so much a part of our society.
TOM: The reference to “You lie,” of course, that was Obama trying to get health care for poor Americans, for God’s sake.
DAVID: That’s right.
TOM: I have actually started doing a little bit of writing on this—it’s so ironic to me that we have a black president and yet there are more black men in prison than there are in college. And we do work with at-risk boys, and we see, if you look at the fatherless rate of African-American boys in this country, it’s incredible.
DAVID: Well, that’s the thing. It hasn’t changed. We just have another way to talk about it that makes us either feel better or feel like certain issues are put to bed. I think that’s been part of the problem with the show, because as entertainment, it is like a screen, like you’re watching just a picture of injustice. We sing, we dance, and we have fun, but when people leave, they can’t that there’s something asking them to reexamine where we are in the society. And it’s hard. We’re at Times Square, which is essentially a very large Disney store, and the fact that we even got to Broadway is, in a way, the greatest victory. I feel like we claimed a new beachhead in entertainment, because Broadway is about entertaining masses of people with very fun entertainment. But can we entertain people and at the same time tell them something they might not want to hear?
TOM: In a funny way, your challenge and my challenge are the same. I have this whole project and a whole editorial team putting together a magazine which is about men talking about what it means to be good fathers, good husbands, good workers. And common wisdom at Disney World is, men don’t want to talk about that.
DAVID: You can’t, because it’s not part of our society. It’s only good by example, not good because you’re talking about it. That’s the role of the male in society, to do good, not necessarily to talk good.
TOM: My answer to that is, the way you get men to talk about it, just like you, is to have them tell compelling stories, and—
DAVID: Tell a story. Tell a story that somehow resonates or has an example or narrative that takes you someplace you might not have gone otherwise. I know that was why Kander and Ebb were attracted to this piece, because you go to someplace you never thought you’d want to go. People say, how could you possibly tell the story of the Scottsboro boys? Why is that entertainment? That, in itself, was a challenge for John and Fred to take you there. But any story of injustice is a great story, an important story. And the fact that people would question why we even thought we could do that is an indication that, oftentimes, people want their stories to be fun and easily digested. That Christopher Isherwood would reject the show because it wasn’t something he thought should be musicalized makes you want to musicalize it even more.
TOM: Do you have any second thoughts in terms of turning the show’s form into a minstrel?
DAVID: Oh, no. The minstrel form is what makes it work. If you’re looking at a story about 1931, the world where it takes place thought of minstrelsy as entertainment. It was in radio, it was in movies, it just was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Everybody—from high school to church groups to camps—was doing minstrel shows. To do a minstrel show requires a certain sense of how you view yourself. And that’s how the world viewed itself. To take that out of the equation is to rewrite history. The minstrel form was an exact reflection of what that world in 1931 was thinking was acceptable.
On another level, though, on the knee-jerk level, it’s a very racist form, and, by combining it with a very racist story, suddenly you’ve got something that makes them uncomfortable. And you should feel uncomfortable when you see nine boys about ready to be executed for rape. So, to me, it was the secret engine of the piece. It constantly entertained the audience, and at the same time made them feel uncomfortable. And, to me, that’s great. It makes people feel something that they’re not sure of, they have to think about it, and they have to talk about it. They find themselves laughing at things that they know are inappropriate. They enjoy things like a tap dance, but that makes them also cringe, because they know that it’s about an electric chair.
It’s that crazy thing of making them look at things as if they were fresh for the first time, and, I wouldn’t change that for anything. Otherwise it’s an after-school special, and people would just say, “That was a nice show about those nine boys. Isn’t that great how everything worked out for them?”
TOM: Do I have it right that several of the actual boys did perform in a minstrel after they got out of prison?
DAVID: They did. When they got out of jail, the first four boys were taken to vaudeville, and they would reenact the trial for the audience. Talk about sick. That’s what America thought was entertainment, watching four of the Scottsboro boys reenact the trial for entertainment purposes.
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