New musical tells the ‘Scottsboro Boys’ tale of denied civil rights


By Diana Saenger

In 1931 nine African-American teenagers were riding a train to Memphis to seek work but ended up being falsely accused of raping two white girls. They were denied an impartial jury, fair trial, fair sentencing, and effective counsel in three different trials. This human drama unfolds in The Old Globe Theatre’s West Coast premiere of “The Scottsboro Boys.” Nominated for 12 Tony Awards, the show opens April 29 at The Old Globe.

The critically acclaimed musical features top-notch talent performing music and lyrics by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Direction and choreography is by five-time Tony Award-winner Susan Stroman, with musical direction by Eric Ebbenga and libretto by David Thompson.

Portraying one of the Scottsboro Boys is Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson (“Twelfth Night,” “The uniVERSE Project”). Duncan, who got his start in an acting program at New York University, was performing at the Yale Repertory Theatre when he got a call from his agent. She informed him that Stroman had seen him and wanted him to audition for this West Coast premiere. Duncan was not aware of the true story at the time.

“I’ve had friends tell me an actor does not choose a role, the role chooses him,” Duncan said. “I felt very fortunate to get the role in an important production, such as ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’ This kind of story was common at that time with a kind of apologizing, like with Rosa Parks or papering over the nuances of what led to the Civil Rights Movement. In the play, Hayward reveals that he was the first to go on trial and be sentenced, and he talks about some of the actual events.”

Also appearing in the musical are Tony Award-winner Ron Holgate, Jared Joseph, JC Montgomery, David Bazemore, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson, Eric Jackson, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Clifton Oliver, Clinton Roane and C. Kelly Wright.

“Susan and her team give us confidence and for people who have accomplished so much, it’s a warm and welcoming ego-free environment,” Duncan said. “It’s a very collaborative team open to new ideas, and we’re told they are building this around us, and it’s the Old Globe production of ‘The Scottsboro Boys.’ “

Stroman, Kander and Ebb have received high praise for their talents in instilling parody and poignancy to recount a story of shocking historical events.

“The Scottsboro Boys” is presented in association with American Conservatory Theater.

Duncan said everyone will take something different away from the performance, depending on their background. “The show is to provoke, and the majority will be shocked and deeply moved.”

If you go

■ What: ‘The Scottsboro Boys’

■ When: Matinees, evenings April 29–May 4

■ Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park

■ Tickets: From $39

■ Box Office: (619) 234-5623

■ Website:

■ Insights Seminar: 7 p.m. April 30 (Reception 6:30 p.m.) Director and choreographer Susan Stroman and playwright David Thompson discuss the history of the production and the issues faced in the creation of the musical.

■ Diversity in the Arts: 7 p.m. May 7 (Reception 6:30 p.m.) Delicia Turner Sonnenberg (MOXIE Theatre) and Seema Sueko (Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company) discuss how theater artists — both present and past — explore stories about race on stage.

■ Turning Points in San Diego Civil Rights History:

7 p.m. June 4 (Reception 6:30 p.m.) Discussion with Carrol Waymon and John Warren.