The minstrel-show framework of “The Scottsboro Boys” may be irritating for several minutes — until the brilliance of the device osmoses into your brain cells.
Outmoded burlesque and tambourines become the underpinnings of our oppression of blacks.
By limelighting a defunct racist motif, along with faded components such as the cakewalk and tap-dancing, the musical effectively makes white racism prance before your eyes like a carnival mirror distortion.
It might make you writhe, though.
And when the American Conservatory Theatre production ends, you may experience a slightly bad aftertaste — not from the show but from the realization that racial discrimination isn’t dead. Case in point: southern states currently trying to block minorities from voting in 2012’s presidential election.
The Interlocutor (Hal Linden) is flanked by Mr. Bones (Jared Joseph, left) and Mr. Tambo (JC Montgomery) in “The Scottsboro Boys,” playing at the American Conservatory Theater.
Photo by Kevin Berne.
The musical starts with solo banjo-pickin’ followed by a tableau of nine teenaged black boys unjustly accused and repeatedly convicted in Alabama of raping two white women in the 1930s.
It ends by detailing how pathetically they fared as men.
In between, there’s enough in the two-hour, intermission-less show to offend anyone who’s distressed by racial inequality — seasoned with enough hope to believe the future will be better.
The ensemble cast is excellent, with strong voices and equally strong dramatic and comedic chops. It’s so forceful in a true team effort it’s hard to pick a standout, even though Jared Joseph as Mr. Bones and JC Montgomery as Mr. Tambo glisten in their exaggerated postures.
C. Kelly Wright also turns in a subtle, stellar performance as a symbolic black woman, The Lady, mute until the very end.
Metal chairs are used, surrealistically and effectively, to represent everything from jail cells to a train car. Unfortunately, their sheer cleverness could detach theatergoers from emotions the storyline might otherwise evoke.
The surrealistic flavor is intensified by black men portraying whites, the lone Caucasian in the cast being former “Barney Miller” TV star Hal Linden as the Interlocutor.
It’s also odd, though purposefully staged that way, to find two black men playing caricatures of the white female accusers via bug eyes and clown-like gestures.
Barbed lyrics by Fred Ebb repeatedly bring you back to reality, however.
Consider a tune that begins with allusions of grits, honeysuckle and “mammy” but morphs into cross-burnings and lynchings.
In contrast, burlesque humor seeps from David Thompson’s book, including this grisly exchange: “What do you call a black boy in an electric chair?” “A shock absorber!”
“The Scottsboro Boys” has a running subtext about telling the truth.
But the harshest truths stem from moments of painful satire. A “white” St. Peter, for example, informs a black man he can enter Heaven but he must go “through the back door.”
A score that’s basic John Kander, alternately bouncy and mournful, is counterbalanced by Ebb’s edgy words. Check out a bigoted prosecutor verbally abusing a recanting witness with claims she accepted “Jew money” for her testimony.
None of that should be surprising, considering Kander & Ebb’s semi-obsession with mankind’s underbelly (as evidenced by their “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and “The Kiss of the Spider Woman”).
Costumes here are extraordinary, ranging from ragtag garb of the defendants to the crisp, pristine whites of the minstrels. Also exemplary is the lighting, especially in instances where creative silhouettes dance behind live characters.
Although “The Scottsboro Boys,” directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, played but 49 performances on Broadway in 2010, the opening night San Francisco audience couldn’t have cared less. It clapped and cheered throughout, then rose in unison for a standing ovation.
One exiting woman intoned uncomfortably, “It’s painful to re-experience all those civil wrongs before they became civil rights.”
But another theatergoer probably spoke for most when she declared, “Wow! Everything about it was wonderful.”
“The Scottsboro Boys” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through July 22. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 or 8 p.m. Matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $95. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.