Susan Stroman Is White! A ‘Scottsboro Boys’ Observation

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I’d like to make an observation. It concerns the Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys tangentially but critically. I ask that you tolerate my brief digression, for I promise to return to the premise of this post.

In the spring of 2009, Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of August Wilson’s brilliant play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, inspired debate among Broadway’s chatterati because Bartlett Sher, indisputably a white man, helmed the show.

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As the New York Times noted, Wilson pointedly did not want white people directing his work. It was also true, the Times reported, that Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, approved the choice of Sher — as well she should have: He’s among our most resourceful, respectful theatrical directors. Yet Romero’s approval was greeted with unease, even hostility, by several prominent African Americans in the theater, thus drawing the Times’ attention. (And also the Wall Street Journal.)

Marion McClinton was first out of the gate and certainly the most strident. He called Sher’s selection “straight-up institutional racism.” (The phrase, quoted by the Times, was originally published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which seems to have digitally scrubbed it.) Hard to parse or spin that one positively, if you ask me.

More measured in his comments was Kenny Leon, a veritable wizard of Wilson who helmed last season’s blockbuster revival of Fences. For him, Broadway lacks a “level playing field” for black directors. (Let’s also recall that audiences on Broadway are nearly 97 percent white.)

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The questions suddenly raged:

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Can white directors — should white directors — direct so-called “black plays”?

Let’s take that a step further:

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Why, oh, why should any play be siloed in terms of ethnicity, religion, sexuality or politics?

Aren’t great plays great plays? Aren’t great playwrights great playwrights? Aren’t great actors great actors?

Being a nation at times so polarized, so paralyzed, by the vestiges of race, are we fated to continually re-litigate the politics of race in our theater? Shall we bar or embrace color-blind casting? Will we demand or expect ethnic litmus tests before serving on the creative teams of certain shows?

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Nearly two years later, now that I think about it, I’m not convinced much a conversation occurred back in 2009.

But I started thinking about all this again while watching The Scottsboro Boys.

Here’s a musical examining one of the two or three most heinous, unforgivably race-driven American persecutions of the 20th century. And it’s written by three white men: composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb and book writer David Thompson. It’s predicated on the metaphor of minstrelsy, probably the most overtly racist cultural form to emerge out of slavery, the Civil War, Plessy v. Ferguson and the legacy of Jim Crow. Save for the superlative John Cullum, the cast of The Scottsboro Boys is entirely African American (and each one phenomenal). The choreographer/director is Susan Stroman, who has more Tonys than a Sopranos lookalike convention. She is also white.

At the risk of igniting a Broadway ballyhoo, the following question is directed to those who objected so vociferously to Sher directing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: If it was not all right for Sher to direct an August Wilson play, is it all right for an all-white creative team to create a musical about the Scottsboro Boys?

I believe, by the way, that it is all right.

I believe, in addition, that McClinton and Leon have a greater point and they ought to continue making it.

In a perfect world, Sher’s directorial abilities will and should outweigh his ethnicity when it comes to being suitable to directing a play. Indeed, ethnicity should inform and affect, not deform and defect.

At the same time, what will it take for Broadway producers, mostly white, to consider African-American directors of plays by whites? Why has a David Mamet play never been directed on Broadway by a black man? Why can’t a play by O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Inge, Albee — you know, the stalwarts, the perennials — be directed by a black man?

Is there “straight-up institutional racism”? Or is Broadway a little clueless?

If you don’t agree that ethnicity ought to be a determinant when it comes to works by nonwhites or concerning topics involving nonwhites, then don’t you have to be opposed to The Scottsboro Boys on principle?

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(The funny thing is, I don’t see anyone talking about this. Was the Sher-Wilson brouhaha really about press?)