Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Scottsboro Boys

IN 1931 nine black teenagers boarded a train in Scottsboro, Alabama, in search of a new life. By the end of their journey, their lives – and those of every American – would be changed forever.

The boys were falsely accused of raping two white girls and were arrested, tried and found guilty.

Over the next seven years there were more trials and appeals and despite one woman recanting her story, only four of the boys were found not guilty and the rest received either prison or death sentences.

The case, which deeply divided America, had a powerful effect on American history and the American Civil Rights Movement. It is now widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice that led to the end of all-white juries in the American South and other major Supreme Court rulings including the right to proper legal representation.

But behind the headlines was the devastating story of nine young men, desperate to prove their innocence to the world.

In 2010, it provided the inspiration for a musical - The Scottsboro Boys - by award-winning composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb that was nominated for 12 Tony Awards including Best Musical before it closed on Broadway in December that year.

But now it's being revived and will receive its UK premiere at the Young Vic on Friday October 18 ahead of a two month run at the Waterloo-based theatre.

It will be directed by Susan Stroman, Tony Award-winning director and produced by Catherine Schreiber who says it’s been a labour of love to bring it to the London stage.

“I have never been more passionate about any other show,” says Catherine ahead of rehearsals. And as we chat it’s clear she’s totally serious.

“It’s just one of those stories which gets you right there,” she says. “It is the most tragic story, a total miscarriage of justice in the treatment of these young men who accused of something they didn’t do.

"However, there are so many people growing up who don’t know what happened and I wanted to change that.

“It wasn’t widely reported outside America so I'm really proud to be able to bring these boys’ story to the UK."

“I think it will resonate in different ways with a British audience and I think they will see the story more objectively."

And she says there was never any doubt as to where it should be performed.

“We always wanted to bring it to London and our number one choice was the Young Vic,”she enthuses.

“The creative team here take risks, are incredibly inventive and have a fantastic energy and they were immediately keen to do it when I approached them.

“It’s not a typical show – it’s certainly not Mary Poppins – it’s edgy, upsetting, disturbing, moving and direct but it is entertaining. The music is breathtaking, the dancing is amazing - I’ve never been so moved.

“Also the audience profile fits perfectly – young, multi-cultural, up for shows which are thought-provoking and keen to see something new and innovative which this definitely is. And of course it’s in the best part of London. It was the perfect choice.”

Taking the lead role of Clarence Norris - one of the nine teenagers - is Adebayo Bolaji, fresh from his success as Harpo in The Color Purple at Southwark's Menier Chocolate Factory.

Gently spoken but with a clear passion for his craft, the 30-year-old – whose acting credits have included James Bond film Skyfall – says there was never any doubt he wanted to be involved.

“I didn’t know very much about it before I auditioned, but having read up on it and then being offered the part of Clarence it was a complete no brainer.

“Clarence was the only one sentenced to death although he was later exonerated and pardoned.

"I want to do the character justice because this is such an important story, and still hugely relevant, so for me as a young black man it's important it's told.

"There are still issues about racism and peoples’ attitudes even now. I think the presentation of young black men in this country is somewhat towards the negative and many are ostracised, misunderstood or objectified.

"That said, I’m really lucky to have been born 30 years ago in London - had I been born in the 1900s it would have been different because of the colour of my skin."

But he insists the musical is far from doom and gloom.

“This isn't just another story about people being mistreated," he says. "Yes, it explores the legal side of the case and discusses nine black boys who were accused of something they didn’t do simply because of the way they looked.

“However, it's simply an amazing production - hard hitting and heart breaking and will make people think - but with humour, fantastic choreography and stunning music.

"Ultimately it's a human story that should be told so I’m really excited and honoured to be part of it.”

And he says he is equally pleased about performing in one of his favourite places.

"I love this part of South London because is so vibrant and it's always really buzzy especially round the theatre.

"And I love the Young Vic and some of the best plays I have ever seen have been staged here – it’s an incredible place and to be able to perform here is a dream."

The Scottsboro Boys is on at the Young Vic, The Cut, Waterloo between October 18 and December 21.

Tickets from £10. Call the box office on 020 7922 2922.

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