‘Can We Tell It Like It Really Happened?’: On Race and ‘The Scottsboro Boys’

Facing protests, Broadway production The Scottsboro Boys will close this Sunday. Tom Matlack argues that the show was misunderstood.

When I was 8, while my classmates were learning their multiplication tables, I was thrown into the back of a paddy wagon and dragged into court. My dad—a Quaker activist—and I had committed civil disobedience on a crisp fall day in Western Massachusetts.

As a little boy who just needed to go to the bathroom, I tried, futilely, to take a leak into a single, seatless toilet in front of a cell full of men. Those few hours behind bars scared me. I didn’t want to go back. While many others who had run-ins with the law at such a tender age went on to serve time, I never stepped foot in prison again as a young man.

But a quarter-century after my childhood arrest, I did go back to jail repeatedly, this time as a visitor. I went to South Bay House of Corrections in Boston, a maximum-security prison in Connecticut, and ultimately, Sing Sing. Sitting with a room full of lifers, deep in the bowels of that stone structure “up the river,” two things struck me: the inmates were nearly all black, and they looked so young. When they went around the room to introduce themselves, it brought tears to my eyes to hear that even the youngest-looking boys had been inside for more than a decade.

Nationally, unemployment among black men ages 16–24 stands at 35 percent. Sixty-five percent of black boys grow up in fatherless homes. Of the prison population of 2,424,279 inmates, 44 percent—more than a million—are black; there are 919,000 black men enrolled in college. If current trends continue, one in three black male babies born today will end up in prison.

We Americans ignore the obvious because it is far too uncomfortable to consider: Martin Luther King’s dream is still far from being realized.

Into this myth of racial progress enters The Scottsboro Boys, a Broadway production that debuted on October 31 at the Lyceum Theater. (Full disclosure: I helped finance the play, in honor of my parents who travelled to Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964, and to honor the African-American inmates with whom I have spent time in ancient human cages like Sing Sing.)

The Scottsboro Boys, about the nine young men who were falsely accused and sentenced to death for raping two white women in 1931, provides a screen upon which our unresolved racism is uncomfortably projected. It sticks its finger into the still-open wound that is race in this country, forcing the audience to watch the boys dance and sing in a minstrel format as they struggle to find their true voice.

The show flips the traditional minstrel show on its head, using it to humanize, rather than caricaturize, the participants. In the opening moments of the play, Haywood Patterson, the eldest Scottsboro boy, asks, “Can we tell it like it really happened? … This time, can we tell the truth?” And by the final scene of the play, the blackface is gone. The minstrel show is over. And we see real men telling a real story of injustice and racism.

Watching The Scottsboro Boys, I was made painfully aware of my own racism. I judge people by their skin color, their religion, their sexual orientation. The fact is, we all do; it doesn’t make us bad people—it makes us human. But if we are ever going to get anywhere on the topic of race, we have to stop sugarcoating the discourse. We can’t let the election of a black president obscure the fact that we’re still locking up all the black men in this country.

“The first time we ever did a reading of the show was the day after Obama was elected, that Wednesday morning, sitting with a group of black men in a rehearsal studio, reading the script,” the show’s writer, David Thompson, told me recently. “And for a second there, it was as if there had been a seismic shift in the world. We thought: ‘Is this piece relevant anymore? Have we discovered that we’re on the other side of the conversation?’ … We realized very 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.

“That’s why the minstrel show combines that ability to have that strange laugh that you would have at the expense of others,” Thompson continued. “In South Park, when you’re watching something that’s just so politically incorrect, you still laugh, and then you think, ‘Well, did I really laugh at that?’ Because it demands that you question something.”

A group in New York calling itself the Freedom Party—a bastardization of the Freedom Democratic Party, for which my parents risked their lives to help blacks get the right to vote in 1964—launched a much-publicized protest against The Scottsboro Boys, picketing the theater and calling upon patrons to boycott. The protests certainly contributed to its demise—it will close on Sunday, December 12.

None of the protestors had seen the play. The group’s leader, Charles Barron, a one-time gubernatorial candidate, organized the protests to raise his own personal profile, while attacking artists who are asking tough questions about racial injustice—the same racial injustice that the Freedom Party claims to be fighting.

My question to the protestors is the one I ask you: When are you going to stop the minstrel show that is race in America, wipe away the blackface, and start telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that might be? It will always be easier to lie when the system reinforces myth.

While the play was being protested outside, the Theater Development Fund bought out two performances for high-school students, most of them black and who had never seen a live theater production. The kids were leaning forward in their seats, cell phones off, fully engaged in the story. “They were laughing, they were screaming, they were gasping, they were laughing louder than I’d ever heard anybody laugh,” Thompson recalled. “And they were more live than I’ve ever heard an audience, especially toward the end.”

Afterward, there was a Q&A with the actors. One kid in the balcony shouted, “If you were in a situation where you had the ability to get out of … to get parole … if you just lied, would you do it?” Somebody else asked, “What was it like to put on blackface for the first time? And what’s it feel like to take it off?” Another kid asked, “Now that you’ve been in the show, what is your opinion about the death penalty?”

The kids got the play at the deepest level, even when the adults outside did not. They were prepared to ask the tough questions we all too often shy away from. Part of our collective immigrant heritage—whether Irish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, or Africans brought here as slaves—is to leave our children a better world than the one we endured. Are we really prepared to leave them, black and white children both, a legacy that perpetuates a fundamental fiction about race in America?

Read Tom Matlack’s full conversation with The Scottsboro Boys writer David Thompson.

©2011, Tom Matlack

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While all complain of our ignorance and error,
everyone exempts himself. - John Glanville

Tom Matlack, "I am a sucker for real-life heroes, particularly the ones that get overlooked. My profile work grew from my first published piece, THE RACE, which describes my own life altering experience in an athletic event barely worthy of the local paper. Coaches and athletes in the sport of rowing were my initial focus before expanding to mainstream sports like professional basketball. Music, film, and television have proven fertile ground for heroic journeys of a different, but related, kind. Finally, I have continued to write bits and pieces of my own story in an attempt to inspire and enlighten."

Thomas Matlack was Chief Financial Officer of The Providence Journal until 1997. He was the lead investor in Art Technology Group, which reached $5 billion in market capitalization in 2001. He founded and ran his own venture firm, started companies like American Profile (sold to Disney for $260 million) and Telephia (sold to Neilson for $560 million), before turning to writing. His work has appeared in Rowing News, Boston Common, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe Magazine and Newspaper, Wesleyan, Yale, Tango, and Pop Matters.

In 2008, Matlack founded, with his venture capital partner James Houghton. He has appeared on national and local television and radio as well as print across the country. The fall of 2009, Matlack led a non-conventional book tour for The Good Men Project that started inside Sing Sing and ended in Hollywood with a screening of THE GOOD MEN PROJECT documentary film followed by a panel discussion including Matt Weiner and Shepard Fairey.

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