African American History and Shakespeare? A strange mixture, but one that British director Mark Rylance brought together in the recent production of Much Ado about Nothing starring Vanessa Redgrave and the American actor, James Earl Jones at the Old Vic in London. Because he set the play in wartime England in a country house next to an American airfield with an African American squadron, I was asked to contribute programme notes on “Military Matters”. Of course, I made clear before hand and in the notes, that no African American airmen were based in Britain (the famous Tuskegee airmen flew from North Africa and Italy), but nonetheless … artistic license, etc., etc! So I went to see the play with some trepidation on November 14th. Sadly Ms Redgrave was” indisposed”, but I doubt it made much difference. My misgivings were more than justified – hearing black airmen address one another as “count”, “senor”, “my lord”, with southern accents was one thing; to see the “older” lovers, Benedick and Beatrice played by people in their eighties and seventies didn’t work very well either. Shakespeare is often hard for uninitiated to follow – this was incomprehensible and sadly my party left at the interval. The programme notes, however, are excellent.
My theatre experience improved considerably the next day as I managed to get tickets to see Kander & Ebbs’s (Chicago, Cabaret) musical the Scottsboro Boys this time in the Young Vic. Again, the premise seemed unlikely – a musical about nine black youths charged with rape in the state of Alabama in 1931. Convicted and sentenced to death, their case, an international case célèbre, dragged on into the 1950s. The “boys” aged 13 to 21 were spared the death penalty, five were freed after a series of re-trials and the rest died in prison or shortly after their eventual release. My misgivings were misplaced in this case – a brilliant production in the form of a minstrel show with brilliant acting and singing turned this into an experience both informative and uplifting. Derek Jacobi, sitting in front of me (!!) led the standing ovation as he (and I) wiped a tear from his eye. A must see. The Guardian reported on 22nd November that the Alabama parole board had finally granted posthumous pardons to the last three of the Scottboro boys. Finally some justice was done.
This play brings a tragic piece of history alive and reminds us of the power of theatre at its best. This week it will be back to the cinema to see The Butler ….