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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages´ ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles.
The new Broadway musical The Scottsboro Boys could have gone down like medicine. After all, it tells the true story of nine young African-American men who were falsely convicted of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931 and subsequently imprisoned for years. Their case ignited a furious national debate and left a thick scar on the country's psyche, so it's easy to imagine a theatre piece that teaches shameful lessons.
Instead, composer John Kander, lyricist Fred Ebb, and librettist David Thompson deliver something sly, lively, and funny. Much like Kander and Ebb's Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys assesses history with a detached, lacerating wit that favors the grotesque to the sentimental. Turning the story into a literal minstrel show, two archetypal, African-American minstrels named Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones welcome us to the carnival of injustice. They joke and sing and play multiple characters---most of them white---while they hustle the Scottsboro Boys across the stage.
But here's the catch: The actors playing the Scottsboro Boys give realistic performances. Their very presence contradicts the gaudy theatrics of the minstrels, and the collision of these characters reveals the spirit of the show. It suggests that normal boys got trapped in the nightmare world of American racism.
That puts enormous pressure on Forrest McClendon and Colman Domingo, who play Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, respectively. How do you build a performance that captures multiple characters and a metaphor?
"It's been a serious journey," says Domingo, who like McClendon has been with The Scottsboro Boys since it played Off Broadway last year at the Vineyard Theatre and earlier this fall at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. "Our first time, Forrest and I were doing research on minstrelsy and trying to find the right tone in contrast to the naturalism of the boys. We were also trying to find out how we work together, what the timing is of sitting down at the same time or what makes the jokes funnier, head shake here or tambourine shake there."
As they developed their performances, Domingo and McClendon realized that Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo were so connected they should occasionally seem indivisible. They worked on walking in tandem, for instance, and giving a pair of white lawmen (Sheriff Bones and Deputy Tambo) similar postures.
And though she refined these moments, director-choreographer Susan Stroman let Domingo and McClendon create them. "We didn't just come in and wait to be molded," Domingo says. "We came to her with options. We were always off to the side, working three scenes ahead."
By now, the pair has a powerful working relationship. "I rely on him entirely," says McClendon, recalling a recent Broadway preview when his deputy hat accidentally fell off during a scene. "Colman, without pause or hesitation, picks that hat up, puts it on my head, and not only pushes me through that moment, but [spontaneously] riffs with me about the hat in the next moment. That symbolizes everything about how we work together."
That's not to say they're giving the same performance, however. Both actors have meticulously built their individual roles (Domingo plays six, McClendon five.)
"I play all the biased characters, and I need to play them differently. It can't just be a general wash of racism," Domingo says. To that end, Sheriff Bones is a man who takes up as much space as he wants. He has a bow-legged walk, always keeps his gun pointed in the air, and speaks in a high-pitched, nasal voice. "To my mind, that voice is the sound of a lynching," Domingo says. "That's the sound that makes a black man run."
On the other hand, when Domingo plays Attorney General, who prosecutes the Scottsboro Boys, he barely moves at all, and his voice is calm. "He takes up space with his mind. He can say things without shouting because he knows he'll win," the actor says.
McClendon, meanwhile, maps out the A to Z of each role, literally assigning a character one trait for each letter of the alphabet. "'G' is for gestures," he explains. "I create three specific gestures that are unique to each of those characters."
McClendon's research also helped him get a handle on his performance. Take Guard Tambo, who sprang from photographs of two guards overseeing the Scottsboro defendants. "I made a decision about which guard I was," he says. "I looked at his tight lips, and that led to everything he said being spit out." Similarly, Deputy Tambo was informed by blustering cartoon characters like Quick Draw McGraw.
But no matter how they got there, both actors have ended up in the same place, in the same show. "We always try to clue each other in about what we're thinking," Domingo says. "We always make a point to look at each other, whether we're in a scene or off stage getting ready to come on, just to stay connected."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
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[Photo credit: Colman Domingo (left) and Forrest McClendon. Photo by Paul Kolnik.]