Come for the entertaining minstrel show, but be sure to deeply consider its tones of racial inequity. That’s the overarching theme behind John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Scottsboro Boys,” which tells the tale of nine black teenagers in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in 1931.
The lively musical, produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company, ties the difficult story together through gospel, jazz and vaudeville. We spoke with Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who plays Mr. Bones, about the bold play’s use of blackface, the importance of the play in today’s sociopolitical climate and why it’s a must-see show this fall.
What drew you to performing in the play?
I saw it originally when it was on Broadway. I was living in New York at the time. It was really impactful that this story was being told. I felt ashamed that it was something I wasn’t super well-versed in — I didn’t know the history of the Scottsboro Boys, which I think is part of the message. When SpeakEasy announced they were doing it, I automatically was like “Can I be seen for one of the roles?”
Why is the use of blackface so important in “Scottsboro Boys”?
Black performers would put on blackface and be in minstrel shows, and that was one of their only ways to perform. Putting on a mask and having to act a certain way and fulfill this stereotype … it’s an elimination of individuality. They were just a general black person. These men faded away into history. You lose their individual stories [with blackface].
Can you describe Mr. Bones?
Mr. Tambo (Brandon G. Green) and Mr. Bones [each] play multiple characters. We’re part of the minstrel show format. There was always these two guys coming in and out. They were kind of like the hosts but then they would take on roles — a judge, a sheriff — within the story. I play a bunch of different characters, you know, interact with the boys.
Why is it important to enact this play today?
It’s been six years [since it was first staged]. It was timely then but it’s even more timely now. I think it’s really bold and brave that SpeakEasy’s doing it. With the climate of today’s issues around social justice and between black people and the police, that conversation is so important to have right now.
What should theatergoers expect when they see “Scottsboro Boys”?
Hopefully difficult conversations will be had by people when they leave it, but they’ll also be entertained. The music’s great, the choreography’s going to be wonderful. At times, people will laugh, people will tap their toes — and people will have to think about some difficult topics at the same time.
If you go
SpeakEasy Stage Co.’s “Scottsboro Boys”
The Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
527 Tremont St., Boston
Tickets begin at $25, speakeasystage.com