So I mean no disrespect when I call the protestors who picketed outside last Saturday's matinee performance of The Scottsboro Boys ignorant. The 30 or so protesters were from an organization called The Freedom Party, and from their Web site, I get the sense that this is a well-meaning group of people.
But I also get the sense, as is so often the case when a group protests a particular work, that few if any of these people had actually seen the show. And that, if true, technically makes them ignorant.
"This racist play has reduced the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys case to a Step n Fetchit comedic, minstrel exhibition...It is this type of attack on our culture and history which makes the Freedom Party absolutely necessary."
I suppose it's possible that at least one person involved had actually seen the show, but if someone had, then that person would have had a chance to read the program notes, which include the following statement from the authors:
"The Scottsboro Boys uses the free-for-all atmosphere of the minstrel show to provide a fitting backdrop for the racially charged media and legal circuses that surrounded the real Scottsboro Boys trials."
There's no question that the idea of using a patently offensive device to tell what is ultimately an empowering story is a controversial prospect. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the actors themselves have had challenges with the subject matter as well as the show's presentation style.
But does that give these people the right to call patrons of the show "racists"? Because that's what some of them were doing last Saturday. I know, because a large group of my students from the Boston Conservatory were in attendance at this particular performance of The Scottsboro Boys. And they filmed portions of the protest and posted the footage on Facebook.
The irony, of course, is that these students were attending the show precisely because they are *not* racists. Many of them were seeing the show at my urging or based on my review. A further irony is that a number of students told me that they were even more captivated by the show because of the protest, which only served to emphasize the importance of the show's message and the incredible power of its artistic execution.
The Scottsboro brouhaha reminded me of when, a few years back, the Boston Conservatory put on a production of Show Boat. Because I teach musical-theater history, I was thrilled that students would have the opportunity to experience this seminal show firsthand. I cover Show Boat in great detail, and make a point of addressing how it was the first show to treat African Americans as three-dimensional, sympathetic people.
In fact, librettist Oscar Hammerstein makes black people the symbolic backbone of the show, most notably by giving Joe, the black stevedore, the show's central anthem, "Old Man River." What's more, one of the major plots of the show centers around the tragedy of how racism destroys the career and life of Julie LaVerne, the mulatto leading lady of the show boat before a jealous suitor reveals her interracial marriage (which was illegal in Mississippi at the time) to the local sheriff.
In addition, I devote a good portion of the first half of my course to the evolution of the portrayal of African Americans in musical theater, from unfortunate stereotypes (Shuffle Along), to sympathetic social commentary (As Thousands Cheer), to stark heart-rending tragedy (Lost in the Stars). So, I was rather taken aback when students protested the fact that we were doing the show, because of the supposedly negative portrayal of African Americans in the show. These were all students who had taken my course, which really had me scratching my head. Had they simply not been paying attention? Had they ever actually seen the entire show? Because anyone who sees Show Boat and thinks that the show is somehow condescending or disrespectful to blacks simply didn't understand the show.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but an informed opinion holds a lot more sway, at least when it comes to the artistic and social value of a certain work. In all honesty, I hope the good folks at The Freedom Party continue to protest The Scottsboro Boys. In the long run, it can only raise the profile of a magnificent show that deserves to be seen.