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Raven’s New Play Brings An Unexpected Twist To Racism And American History


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It takes quite a bit of music, dancing and artful dialogue to turn a story about racism, anti-Semitism, classism and exploitation into the witty and humorous tale that now headlines the Raven Theatre’s latest performance offering.

Yet “Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)” isn’t just a satirical play about nine African-American teenagers two white women falsely accused of rape during the Great Depression. Neither is it just about the teens’ quick first trial by an all-white jury that sentenced eight of the boys to death and one to life imprisonment.

The play is also a story about how two organizations that defended the teens were perhaps more focused on their own self-interests than they were in helping the teens regain their reputations and obtain their freedom. While the rulings were later overturned, the false allegations ruined the teens’ lives.

Playwright Mark Stein’s historical drama, which began its regular run and Midwest premier last Friday, Sept. 25, features an all African-American cast of six men and three women. Their energetic performance delves into the anger and deep despair the Scottsboro Boys feel well beyond the initial false allegations, when their case becomes a media circus.

The nine African-American teens became known as the Scottsboro Boys while hoboing on the railroad near Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. When a fight broke out on the train, the teens were pulled off the track and arrested for assault. Additionally, two white women who were also hoboing on the train accused the boys of rape.

Two organizations provided legal counsel for the teens: The International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the American Communist Party; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

After two trials made up of all-white juries twice convicted the nine teens, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. The high court overturned the earlier rulings, in part because one of the white women in the case said that she and her fellow accuser had been pressured to falsely accuse the Scottsboro Boys.

Meanwhile, two important changes in judicial law came about as a result of the Supreme Court case. The first ruled that the teens should have received adequate legal counsel during their first trial. The second ruling made it possible for African-Americans to serve on juries.

Michael Menendian directed the play, Frederick Harris was the musical director, Harley White Jr. was in charge of the music and lyrics, and Kathleen Dennis was the choreographer.

“Direct from Death Row The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)” continues until Nov. 14. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 3 p.m. General admission is $42.

The Raven Theatre is located at 6157 N. Clark St.

For more information, visit www.raventheatre.com.

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