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Broadway's Almost-True Stories, Part 1

Date: Nov 23, 2010


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Welcome to Part 1 of our two-part look at how Broadway is currently staging history. Today, we ask audience members for their reactions to seeing history on stage, and next week, we ask Broadway artists how they balance art and history in their work.

Like so many productions before them, the current Broadway musicals Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys ask audiences to make an ethical choice.

On one hand, the shows are based on actual history, with Bloody charting the life and times of our seventh president and Scottsboro following the nine young black men who were falsely accused of raping two white women in Jim Crow-era Alabama. On the other, they are works of art, crafted to tell an entertaining story.

When we sit down to watch them, we must decide how much history we'll accept, and how much art. Will we overlook factual inaccuracies, for instance, if we're having a good time? Will we expect to learn something while we're tapping our toes to the eleven o'clock number?

Everyone's barometer is different, but each response feeds a larger ethical conversation. To that end, TDF Stages reached out to two people---a teacher and a student---who participate in TDF's education programs and asked them for their thoughts on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, and the balance of history and art.

Christina Gardner teaches English at Millennium High School in Manhattan, and she recently took her students to see Scottsboro through TDF's Stage Doors Program. "I knew very little [about the real-life events,] which I was surprised by, because I was a history minor in college and in high school, I took AP U.S. History," she says. She has since researched the case, which sent all nine defendants to jail for years, and her students have written about it, too

She's been especially struck by the musical's form, which turns the story into a Depression-era minstrel show. The cast---featuring twelve black actors and one white actor---shucks and jives with gusto, treating the trials like grand entertainment. This is all ironic, of course, suggesting that justice for black men in the 1930s was a terrible circus, and there are moments when the show drops its vicious grin and exposes the rage and pain beneath the surface.

Gardner was unsettled to see a minstrel show. "[But] the form they were trying to use, for me, was justified and legitimized by those serious moments," she says. "I could tell they were trying to take risks, that they were trying to give the audience something that was really challenging and would maybe even make you a little bit angry and make you question some of those forms of the theatre that were used in the past."

The show has certainly provoked anger. On November 6, a group called The Freedom Party protested outside The Lyceum Theatre (where The Scottsboro Boys is playing), insisting the artists were wrong to use a minstrel show to tell a true story about American racism.

Gardner anticipated this reaction after seeing the show: "I found myself wondering how many people would be mad about the way the show approached the material versus the way that I was mad about it, from the perspective that all these white actors had had on blackface and that black actors were forced to follow in the same tradition," she says.

Ultimately, she has more reservations about facts than form. She notes, for instance, that the character of Eugene Williams is said to attend seminary after his ordeal, but the actual Williams left prison to live with his family in a basically normal life. "I do think there is a level at which it's devaluing certain things about the history of it," Gardner says. "My kids are picking up on that and saying, 'Why did they change things in the play? And I keep giving them the answer, 'Well, it's creative license.'"

For Ben Wolfson, a junior at Hunter College High School in Manhattan, creative license invigorates history. As a writer for SEEN, TDF's magazine by and for teenagers, he saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,, which turns the president into a rock star in leather pants.

"I didn't quite see how history and a musical could be compatible," Wolfson says. "I was expecting a statement on contemporary times or a revitalized history, in the sense that they would all be wearing 1848 clothing and talking like Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter."

The show's irreverent approach---which includes power ballads, sarcasm, and buckets of blood---worked for him. He says, "If you look at a history textbook, you get the facts, and you're like, 'Yeah, I know now that in 1837 he didn't sign the federal bank charter and the bank fell and they had a five-year depression, but it's not memorable. I know that in five years, I'll forget it. Seeing it live, I may not remember the details, but I'll definitely remember the feeling, the era of Andrew Jackson."

Coincidentally, Wolfson was recently assigned an essay on Andrew Jackson by one of his teachers, so while the musical has given him a vivid and perhaps lasting sense of Jackson's era, his schoolwork is deepening his understanding of the facts. That may be the ideal balance: Letting the art sketch the outline of the picture, and letting research fill in the details.


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor