Newspapers were full of stories of the 1931 arrests, trials and convictions of nine young black men who were charged with raping two white women in Scottsboro, Ala.
Today, many people have never heard the story. Those with the Liberty Theatre hope to change that this weekend when “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys — An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow” is presented. The show has three performances Friday to Sunday.
The nine teenagers — four from Tennessee and five from Georgia — had hopped a train to go to Memphis to find work.
During the Depression, thousands of people, both black and white, would hop on freight trains to get from one city to the next. On one such trip, a fight allegedly broke out between a group of white and black people who had hopped on the train.
The train’s conductors called the authorities in the next town, which happened to be Scottsboro, to alert the police of the fight. Many of the involved people disappeared, but nine black teens were apprehended.
Later two young white woman would accuse the nine young men of rape.
Though there was evidence that police had coerced the young women into lying, the nine men were tried by an all-white jury, convicted and jailed.
After a massive defense movement which included street marches and public outrage, the men’s convictions would be overturned. All nine men were eventually released from prison.
Director Jonathan Perkins admits though he had heard of the case, he didn’t know much about the story. Now, he knows a lot more.
“It is an important, but forgotten piece of history,” Perkins said. He said most of the cast knew nothing about it.
Chauncy Glover, a WTVM 9 reporter, did because he grew up in Huntsville, which is a little more than 40 miles away from Scottsboro.
He plays the narrator of the show, Haywood Patterson, who was one of the nine ‘Scottsboro Boys.’
“I’m playing Haywood,” he said. “I’m the one who is the most bitter.”
The subject is grim, but Glover said the play is “funny, with a lot of music and a lot of laughter.
“Now, that doesn’t negate the issues of the story. There are so many stories. The stage is full of moments. There are moments you want to cry; moments you want to chuckle; moments when you’re angry.”
Each of the nine boys tells his story. In a bit of untraditional casting, Perkins has cast women to play men as they take on the roles of six of the Scottsboro Boys.
A set of twins, Alicia and Anitra Thompson, play male twin teens accused of rape. Anitra plays Leroy and Alicia is Andy Wright.
“It takes a lot to let go of my girlishness,” Anitra Thompson said.
“I’m unbelievably girly,” Alicia Thompson said. “I’ve had to learn how to walk and talk like a boy. I have to lower my voice. I thought, ‘Oh, gosh! I’ve got to look like a guy.’ But it’s a good thing for an actor. I think casting directors will be impressed that I played a guy.”
Kenneth Bell, who plays Clarence, thinks it’s easier for a man to play a female role.
“I mean, how many times have I put on a dress and twirled around in the mirror?” he joked.
He says he makes an unattractive woman, and swears he hasn’t played dress-up since he was a little boy.
Seriously, though, Bell is happy to be reenacting a true story.