The very first show I had my name on as a producer on Broadway was called The Scottsboro Boys.
Those of you in the theatre may have heard of it, but many people will not know the show because it only ran for two months on Broadway and while almost every interview I have done has asked me about how I became a producer, I have never been asked about why I decided to raise money for that show.
For those who have never heard of the show, it was a musical that dealt with the famous Scottsboro case in which 9 Black Boys were falsely accused of raping two white women and were found guilty every time they went to trial.
I say every time because the case involved the boys being sent to jail, then sent back to trial, then sent back, to jail and the stories of their accusers kept changing.
The show created a very intense commentary by using the minstrel show as the vehicle in which it was told and if you were among the people who saw it, it was a very powerful and emotional piece.
I decided to get involved when I went to a presentation for potential producers and investors where they played a few songs from the show and had a talkback with the creative team.
During that talkback, things got heated and many people were having a very passionate discussion about race and when I saw how so many people were engaging in a real discussion, I knew I wanted to work on it.
When we did make it to Broadway, the reviews were mixed, the box office was struggling, and we had to close within two months but we were nominated for 12 Tony awards.
We didn’t win any that year.
We were swept by The Book Of Mormon which I’m guessing you’ve heard of as it has been running on Broadway (up until recently) ever since.
So naturally, a few years after Scottsboro had closed, I wanted to see the show that beat us, because so many people had told me that it was the funniest show they had ever seen but there was a point in the show when I had a pretty intense realization that changed to the whole experience for me.
While everyone was laughing around me, I realized that the show turned the issues that were happening in Uganda (AIDS, female genital mutilation, etc.) into punch lines.
And because it was from the writers of South Park who had billed themselves as an equal opportunity offender when it came to being derogatory, everyone seemed to be along for the ride.
The show finished and my wife asked me if I liked it and I shared with her my thesis as to why I thought we lost the Tony and Mormon won it.
The Scottsboro Boys used a minstrel show as a device to tell a very intense story and if you were a white audience member, you had no choice but to confront that. The show was filled with black actors who were telling you an honest story and who were actual characters.
It even used the idea of Caricature to get its point across.
On the other hand, The Book Of Mormon took very serious topics and people and turned them all into caricatures and if you were a white audience member you didn’t have to confront anything. You were there to laugh.
I said to my wife:
Mormon was an actual minstrel show and that’s why it won the Tony.
People preferred to laugh at Ugandans with AIDS being cured by copulating with frogs as opposed to confronting the complicated past of our country when it comes to race.
I used to say that Broadway had to be just dumb enough to succeed, meaning that you couldn’t get too intellectual with Broadway shows because intellectualism doesn’t often have mass appeal.
But looking back on it especially with all of the things I’ve been learning about recently there’s also the argument that it has to be just safe enough to succeed.
I’ve been thinking about this story because it illustrates how easy it is for these things to slip by.
How easy it is for us to laugh and not realize what we’re actually laughing at.
To be clear, I laughed at the show too as did many of the people I know, but there was that moment when that laugh caught in my throat because I realized what I was laughing at.
If we choose to create content both in the entertainment world and the marketing world it’s important to take the time to think about these things.
I don’t want to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.
I don’t want to portray people like cartoons.
I want real discussions.
That to me is what theatre has always been about.
That to me is what good content has always been about.
Uncomfortable work is the most important.
And few things are more uncomfortable than confronting that fact that everyone around you is laughing at something that you know isn’t funny.
P.S. This post was inspired by this video I watched from Giffin Matthews who had a musical about the work he did in Uganda. It’s also worth a listen.