TOM: So what do you say to those who say your show is racist?
DAVID: Well, you know, that statement really came from the Freedom Party. I see that as the most cynical response that I’ve ever heard in my life. Not only did they not see the show, they didn’t understand it, and they didn’t engage in a conversation. They could show up 10 minutes before the show, and then leave before the audience came out. Right there, that’s chicken. You’ve been in protests. That’s not a protest. That’s standing on your front porch and throwing water balloons at the kids in the front yard. But the thing that was sick about it is, they were—this is exactly what the show’s about—they were dealing with misinformation. It was easier for them to believe what they needed to believe than it was to look at what was really happening. That’s what got those boys in trouble in the first place: that our society believed—it was easier for them to believe—that all black boys wanted to do was rape girls, rather than really look at the possibility that the girls were lying and the boys were innocent. And it’s the same thing. You believe what’s in front of you. You don’t believe the truth, because it’s easier to keep the lie alive.
The second thing that’s very cynical about it is the Freedom Party was led by a man running for governor, who was looking for a cause that kept his name in the papers. Charles Barron. No secret about that. If you look at his history, he’s had a lot of very strange acts of civil disobedience that aren’t really based on anything. But what’s sick about it is, that’s the other thing that happened to the boys, too. It was better for those boys to remain in jail for a lot of the activists, because they had become more symbols for causes than real human beings. A lot of the letter-writing that went back and forth about the Communist Party’s involvement with the Scottsboro boys was that it was better to have those boys in jail than it was to actually free them, because they remained a rallying cry for the Communist Party they wouldn’t have been otherwise. Well, we just saw that happen again.
The sad thing is, the protestors all went away thinking they had actually caused something to happen, when, in fact, the show closing was caused by the economic realities of producing on Broadway today. It had nothing to do with them. As a matter of fact, ticket sales spiked when they were in front of the theater. So, to me it’s very disingenuous. But those were the court jesters.
There are two different groups of people. There were the people who protested the show, they hated it; and then there were people who saw the show and didn’t like it. Those people, I was always willing to have a conversation with, because they had a reaction to something that they understood. They rejected it, that’s fine. That’s what art is. You don’t have to like the piece of art that you’re looking at, nor the story you’re being told. If you’ve engaged in what the artists are trying to tell you and you reject it, that is great. That’s your choice. But at least you stepped forward openly into the conversation.
TOM: The part that pissed me off most is that the Freedom Party is a reference to the Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi in 1964, for which my father risked his life.
DAVID: There’s nothing a white person hates more than being called a racist. And the truth is no defense in a court of law. Only facts are. If somebody calls you a racist, you can’t say, I’m not a racist, because now you’re just arguing perception. So to look at that story by people who are just attacking it with a racist response, that’s not a discussion. There are people who—your life is an example—who really went after something, and stepped forward and got themselves into the middle of it, and they understood where they were, and they made a choice to get into that discussion.
TOM: To me, the most important question is, in the play is, can we tell the truth this time? And what is that truth? What is the truth you were trying to get across?
DAVID: On one level, the simplest truth is, were they guilty or were they innocent? In 1931, 1932, all of the years that followed, there was a question of whether or not these boys were innocent or guilty. That’s the simple truth. You want to be able to show that they were innocent. And you want to see why people find it’s easier to believe they were guilty in the sort of blind miscarriage of justice that went along with it, as the court systems were falling into disrepair just as these boys worked their way through the different trials. That’s one level.
The next question is, what is the truth when it comes to how we collectively react to issues of racism. What are our intentions? How are we trying to change the national conversation about what is right and what is wrong? And it can be about anything. It can be about anybody who’s marginalized or moved away from the table. Anybody, any group. It could be gays in the military. It could be women. It could be any group at all that somehow finds itself disregarded and taken out of the conversation. And that’s the bigger truth, the other truth. When your opinion or your idea or your voice is no longer valued or heard. And where are we in that conversation? It’s not just about black and white, it’s about us as a human race, and how we converse for all sorts of reasons. To me, that’s the bigger story.
TOM: Yeah, that’s my jumping-off point in the writing I’m doing. To me, it comes down to this idea we’re living this fiction—there’s no longer this race problem, there’s no longer this homophobia problem, there’s no longer this anti-Semitic problem, there’s no longer this gender problem, etc., etc., etc. And it forces a black-and-white view of the world, which is much more complicated than that. So in order to even enter into the conversation, my point of view is that, of course, I judge people based on their ethnicity, and by whether they’re gay or straight, or whether they’re man or woman. I’m a human being. Even—in the dark of night, I make fun of crippled people, or whatever it is. It’s their humanness that I actually have compassion for, and that’s how I connect, through their story. But we don’t get any of that complexity in our country. It’s all—everything’s great, black people—we did the civil rights thing in the ’60s, so it’s over. To me, the story of how this play has been perceived, is just putting a finger into the open wound of that false view of the world.
DAVID: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it. And—you said, in the middle of the night you will make fun of crippled people, and you will laugh. That’s still something that we do, and we have to do. We find humor in all of that. And it can be terrible humor, because humor often comes from the most tragic of situations. That’s why the minstrel show combines that ability to sort of have that strange laugh that you would have at the expense of others—in South Park, when you’re watching something where it’s just so politically incorrect, and you still laugh—and then you think about it. You think, did I really laugh at that? It demands that you question something. Because when you laugh at something, it’s involuntary. It’s very hard to watch something that’s funny and decide that you hate it, but then still laugh.
You’re right, though, a larger truth here is looking at America as a whole. The Scottsboro boys’ story is one piece of that. But it’s all people who have been marginalized, including people who are often thought to have the most power, whether it’s a white liberal man or a white conservative man.
We had something happen a lot, especially with friends of cast members who come: people would leave the theater hating the show. It really confused the cast members, early on. Their friends would come and see the show, and they would leave the theater very confused, and not be able to talk to the cast members. I remember Rodney Hicks had this experience particularly. A very good friend of his came to the show and left angry, and Rodney was very hurt, didn’t understand what was happening. And then, several days later, his friend sent a very long, apologetic email, basically saying, “I was so confused, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking. Now that I’ve had a distance on the show, I understand what you’re doing.” He then went on to become an incredible advocate for the piece.
TOM: Again, I have this history of civil rights, and yet, kind of rebelled against my parents by becoming a venture capitalist, and certainly I’m no purist when it comes to race. But one of the most basic ironies that makes me so angry is, in this work of talking about men’s stories, I’ve spent a lot of time in prison with men, and so I don’t know about you, but going into prison’s about the scariest thing that I have done in my life. One of our authors spent 14 years in Sing Sing. And when I went on my book tour, the first place I went—he’s out now, and goes back into Sing Sing to teach a theology program—I went with him into Sing Sing, and told my story, and listened to the story of 14 men who are in there for life, not coming out. And this idea that Scottsboro Boys is over, that at some level that’s not happening any more, is just wrong. When I go into Sing Sing and look around, it’s 60 percent black, 35 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent white. You look around, and you say, Hey, yes, maybe these black men had more due process than the Scottsboro boys did. They weren’t thrown in for rape, literally on false charges. But there’s something truly fucked-up about what’s going on in this country when over two and a half million men are in prison, of whom 45 percent, almost a million, are black. I mean, it’s just crazy. And 11 percent of all black men in the country are in prison, and 1 percent of white men are in prison. The bottom line is, you can say all you want about how the race problem is over, but it’s not.
DAVID: You know, that’s just an incredible way to look at it. The bottom-line statistic. If you look at it from that perspective, it’s very sobering.
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