Two Actors, One Role, One Provocative Musical

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Imagine this: You’re a young African-American musical theater actor, and you’ve just been asked to be in a minstrel show.

That’s what faced Forrest McClendon when he was asked to join the cast of the 2010 Broadway production of “The Scottsboro Boys,” with Tony Award-winning heavy-hitters director/choreographer Susan Stroman, the musical team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”) and a book writer David Thomas (“Steel Pier”).

But this wasn’t one of the racist entertainments that flourished in the 19th and early 20th century of white men in blackface performing racist stereotypes, Instead, it was a musical using the template of the minstrel show, but this time performed by African-Americans to tell the story of nine black men and boys falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.

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Ben Brantley writing in The New York Times wrote the challenge of the show, “which dares to present ugly American history as bawdy burlesque, is to keep audiences dancing nimbly between the two states of feeling, enticing us to cackle knowingly at the plague of racism at one moment, and arousing sorrow and sympathy for its victims the next. Can we simultaneously deride the cakewalk, the high-stepping dance that was a classic element in the disgraced minstrel show tradition, and taste of its visceral delights too?”

Forrest McClendon in “Cabaret”

Forrest McClendon in “Cabaret”

The musical received 12 Tony nominations, including one for ’89 UConn grad McClendon as Mr. Tambo, who, with Colman Domingo as Mr. Bones, assisted the white overseer of this minstrel show.

West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park will present “The Scottsboro Boys” June 26 through Aug. 4. Torrey Linder will play the role that Forrest McClendon originated on Broadway while McClendon will be performing as the Emcee in “Cabaret” at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series.

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Torrey Linder in “The Scottsboro Boys”

Torrey Linder in “The Scottsboro Boys”