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An In-Depth Interview with Sean Harris on “The Scottsboro Boys”

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March 2019

The Scottsboro Boys are making Connecticut History

by contributing writer, Amanda Forker

After their critically acclaimed, sold-out run of Lin Manuel Miranda’s, In the Heights, last summer, the artistic and executive directors of Playhouse on Park (Sean Harris, Darlene Zoller and Tracy Flater) know that producing The Scottsboro Boys presents some unique risks and challenges they haven’t faced before. They also know that they have a responsibility to produce relevant shows with diverse casts, involve their community through educational outreach and share vital stories that need to be told. They are ready for this challenge and eager to engage the community in the process.

The Scottsboro Boys is a musical that tells the true story of nine, young African-American men who were falsely accused of rape on March 25, 1931, and the grievous injustices they faced throughout the rest of their lives because of it. Written by the popular musical songwriting team, Kander & Ebb (ChicagoCabaretFosse), this musical received the highest of praise, but also met with some harsh criticism during its two-month run on Broadway in 2010. To be frank, this is a controversial show and a box-office risk for any theater company brave enough to perform it…and it’s coming to Playhouse on Park this summer.

As the 88th anniversary of the terrible event approached, I reached out to Sean Harris, who will also be directing the upcoming production of The Scottsboro Boys, to ask him some questions about this exciting and ambitious endeavor.

June 26-August 4

Q:  What motivated you to choose The Scottsboro Boys for the last show of your 10th season?

Sean:  I think The Scottsboro Boys represents exactly who we are as a theatre. Our mission has always been to find ways to challenge, entertain, and educate audiences, while immersing them in the story. We framed the theme of our tenth season around bravery. This production highlights the undeniable bravery of the characters but also calls us to step up to the challenge of producing it. We can think of no better way of not only celebrating our 10th Anniversary season, but doing justice to that achievement by producing this most important story.

Q:  Why is this is an important show for Playhouse on Park to produce?

Sean: This show features a fabulous range of musical styles and the opportunity to develop exciting choreography. But it also tells a profoundly important, true story that too many people know nothing about – nine young men falsely accused of rape in the 1930’s, whose criminal cases ultimately led to two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings reversing their convictions, but whose lives were nevertheless ruined.   Racism, then and now, is often too difficult to discuss or can be brushed under the rug; the story of the Scottsboro Boys is no different. Yet, the music and the dance numbers are not only spectacular but critical to helping the characters tell their truth in a way that audiences can receive and, hopefully, not forget. Using the intimacy of our theater space, we want to create an immersive and visceral connection with the characters as well as a communal experience for our audiences.  

Q:  How do you think this show will benefit the Greater Hartford Community?

Sean:  The show has never been done before in Connecticut, so being able to tell this important story in the Greater Hartford Community is really special. We hope to learn and grow along with the community and we’re excited to engage with people after each show.  

Q:  Professional productions of The Scottsboro Boys have been met with protests and criticism for its use of minstrelsy and blackface. Considering current events, what are your thoughts on why they are necessary aspects of the show?

Sean: From what I understand, many (if not most) of those who protested The Scottsboro Boys during its run on Broadway did not see the show. I believe that Joyce Kulhawik, in an article she wrote on October 27, 2016 entitled; “A Tale of Justice Deferred in SpeakEasy’s Sharp-Edged ‘Scottsboro Boys,'” put it best: “Unlike an historic minstrel show, with its white (and often black) actors in blackface playing stock characters that caricature black folks, this cast of minstrels is entirely black. It proceeds to caricature the white folks, from the women who initially accused the boys to the politicians, police and lawyers who victimized them. The show takes the racial stereotypes of minstrelsy and puts them at the mercy of a true tale of racial prejudice. This subversive device is as brilliant as it is disturbing, affording us a rich menu of gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz and tap, and paying homage to the song, dance and narrative foundations upon which musical theater is built.”

Q:  Were you familiar with the story of The Scottsboro Boys before choosing this musical?

Sean:  I was only passively familiar with the story. My history books in high school and college very rarely addressed the darkest parts of American history, especially those parts steeped in racism. When we started talking about this show as a possibility, I dove deeper into the research and knew that this was a story that needed to be told again.   

Q:  How do you intend to engage the community in this production?

Sean: We will be having facilitated question and answer sessions with the audience and cast after every performance hosted by guests from the community. In the months before the run, we have a committee focused specifically on outreach and we hope to talk about the show as much as possible. We plan to create a study guide, for both students and general audiences, to read in advance of seeing the show and will be adding relevant literature to our website. Additionally, we’re exploring panel presentations, seeking support for small group conversations with skilled facilitators, working on educational outreach for younger audiences and engaging community organizations.

Q:  What do you want the community to know about this show and your production of it?

Sean:  We want the community and our audiences to know that we are going to produce this show with thoughtfulness, sensitivity and a deep commitment to telling this story honestly, using the most of our creative abilities.

Q:  How do you intend to tell the story of these young, African American men and the injustices they faced, in an authentic, informed and compassionate way?

Sean:  Research is important but what has been most important for us as a predominantly white creative team is to acknowledge that it is not our story to tell. This story is masterfully told through the point of view of the nine young men and the last thing we want to do is to tell this predominantly African American cast how to feel. If we are successful in our commitment to tell this story honestly and with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, it is because we will have created and formed this story together. If we are successful in the telling of this story, the audience will feel that connection, too. 

Q:  What are you most excited about for this production?

Sean:  I am very excited for the creative process. I am convinced that we will be inspired and challenged by every moment in the rehearsal room. Given the extraordinary work of Kander and Ebb and the power of the story itself, I anticipate that our creative, artistic, and technical teams, together with the cast, will be pushed to the height of our artistic selves; it will be an unforgettable artistic journey.    I am also eager to have conversations: Conversations about the process, with the press, with the audiences and with the community. Ultimately, I believe that this show perfectly aligns (perhaps more so than any other we’ve ever done) with our artistic mission, which is to challenge, to educate and to entertain our audiences.              

director Sean Harris

*Some of the above responses have been edited for length and clarity.The Scottsboro Boys plays from June 26 through August 4 at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with an added Tuesday matinee July 2 at 2 p.m. Tickets are on sale now!
$40 to $50; $35 to $45 for students, seniors & Let’s GO Arts members.

860-523-5900 x10.

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