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‘Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys’ a masterful work of history and theater

Just when I thought it was all but impossible for another exceptional production to join the ranks of such early fall season productions as “Oklahoma!” (at Paramount Theatre), “The Revel” (at the House Theatre Chicago), “The Tempest” (at Chicago Shakespeare) and others, Raven Theatre has opened a knockout show bearing the long but aptly descriptive title “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow).” It’s a stunner.

A work of searing truth and staggering theatricality, this Midwest premiere of Mark Stein’s important, ingeniously conceived play — with a wonderfully warped use of traditional songs, plus original music and lyrics by Harley White Jr. — is a magnificent achievement on the part of its creators. And it has been brilliantly directed by Michael Menendian (in the most superb, breakout work of his long career), with a cast of nine young, blazingly talented African American actors diving brilliantly into satirical work that would bring a big smile to Bertolt Brecht’s face.

Add to this the droll, effortless presence of pianist-music director Frederick Harris, the volcanic period choreography by Kathleen Dennis and the contributions of an ideal design team, and you have a production that does full justice to the enduring case being chronicled. But you also have a show that turns what might have been a straightforward documentary into a volcanic, searingly painful yet simultaneously immensely entertaining look at the whole panoply of issues — race, politics, justice, celebrity, sex, money, class and the nature of individual character — illuminated by this case.

Breon Arzell (left) and Andrew Malone (with Semaj Miller, background) in the Raven Theatre production of “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)
Breon Arzell (left) and Andrew Malone (with Semaj Miller, background) in the Raven Theatre production of “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)

The actors arrive on a mostly bare theater stage, with set designer Ray Toler’s brick walls, rigging ropes and vaudeville banner serving as the backdrop for a story that moves from a train, to multiple prisons, to courthouses and beyond. Gradually they begin to tell the story in all its absurdity and injustice.

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‘DIRECT FROM DEATH ROW: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS

(AN EVENING OF VAUDEVILLE AND SORROW)’

Highly recommended

When: Through Nov. 14

Where: Raven Theater, 6157 N. Clark

Tickets: $42

Info: (773)338-2177;

www.raventheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours and

30 minutes with one intermission

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The Scottsboro Boys were nine African-American teenagers who, in 1931, happened to be on the same freight train, “hoboing” between Chattanooga and Memphis. Several of the boys became involved in a melee with white boys who had taunted them. The white boys jumped off the train and reported them to the local sheriff. He sent a posse to stop and search the train at Paint Rock, Alabama, where the black boys were arrested. Two young white women from the train (both with a history of prostitution) accused the boys of rape. The case was first heard in Scottsboro, Alabama, in three different trials in which the defendants received poor legal representation. Despite the lack of any medical evidence to suggest rape, all but the 12-year-old boy among them were convicted of that crime and sentenced to death.

The case became a cause celebre, attracting the attention of both a Communist-based International Defense League attorney and a celebrity lawyer (both much-resented northern Jews), and the NAACP (with its genteel, make-no-waves black spokesman). None of these men had entirely altruistic motives, and all were loathed by the white southern judges, sheriffs and politicians involved with the case. Over many years, as multiple appeals and trials played themselves out, mob actions, frame-ups, all-white juries, rushed trials, bribes, lies and secret deals left a long trail of evidence attesting to the miscarriage of justice. And much damage was done to the young men who languished in prison.

Charli Williams (from left), Anna Dauzvardis and Katrina D. Richard play the mothers in “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)
Charli Williams (from left), Anna Dauzvardis and Katrina D. Richard play the mothers in “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys.” (Photo: Dean La Prairie)

At the center of the story is Haywood Patterson (played with charm and rage by Kevin Patterson), the adventurous teen who will never cop a plea. Completing the group are the more introverted Clarence (Tamarus Harvell), Charlie (Andrew Malone), Olen (Samaj Miller), Andy (Brandon Greenhouse) and Willie (Breon Arzell), and three younger boys played by women, including Ozie (Anna Dauzvardis), Eugene (Katrina D. Richard) and Leroy (Charli Williams).

All but Patterson play multiple roles, aided and abetted by Sarah Jo White’s eye-popping costumes and David Knezz’s marvelous masks. Arzell is sensational as Joe Brodsky, the communist; Malone is ideally smarmy as lawyer Sam Leibowitz; Miller is priceless as the even smarmier Southern power broker General Knight, and Harvell plays Judge Horton. The women are superb as the Scottsboro mothers who enjoy the spotlight, and Richard is altogether astonishing as Victoria Price, the mendacious young prostitute who lives to be quite old, while Dauzvardis is hilarious as Ruby, the prostitute inept at lying.

The vaudeville turns (which make blackly comic use of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” as well as “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Oh, Susannah” and “The Internationale”) magnify the corruption, venality and duplicity and generate both laughter and disgust. But it is the touching recounting of the Scottsboro’s Boys’ long-term fates that jolts you right back to the heartbreaking reality.

[NOTE: This show, produced in Los Angeles in 2002, is not to be confused with the Kander & Ebb musical “The Scottsboro Boys,” which ran on Broadway in 2010.]