Three almost-proscenium-sized picture frames, stacked asymmetrically upstage — plus a pile of chairs initially heaped in the center — comprise the design for “The Scottsboro Boys.”
Nothing more is needed, set-wise, to enhance the Susan Stroman-directed, 2010 Broadway musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with book by David Thompson, onstage at American Conservatory Theater.
Those simple frames (set by Beowulf Boritt) contextualize the play’s layered storytelling, as a group of minstrels assembles for tonight’s entertainment: a satirical and exquisitely subversive enactment of the infamous true-life case of the Scottsboro Boys.
In the 1930s, nine African-American teenage boys hopped a freight train in Chattanooga, Tenn., and were arrested in Scottsboro, Ala., accused by two young prostitutes, also riding the rails, of rape.
Even when one of the women later recanted, the young men languished in prison. After the first botched trial, a New York Jewish lawyer volunteered to defend them.
Trial after trial ensued.
“These here innocent boys are guilty as charged!” bellows the judge at one point in the play.
The show’s creators co-opted the now-long-discredited minstrel show genre to tell this disturbing story of racism and Southern injustice, with two exaggerated, cartoonish characters guiding the action as traditional storytellers Bones (Jared Joseph) and Tambo (JC Montgomery).
A sunny Hal Linden is the master of ceremonies, or Interlocutor (the only white member of the cast), a cluelessly affable Southern gentleman in an ice cream suit and top hat.
Only the nine convicted men and to a degree their New York lawyer (Montgomery again) play their roles in a realistic vein; they are surrounded by the faux-comic antics of the two prostitutes (Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane) and various (white) authority figures, with most actors playing multiple roles to great effect.
An iconic female figure (C. Kelly Wright) lurks on the fringes of the stage, a harbinger of a new world order to come.
This is a musical with such good, resonant songs, accompanied by a live orchestra, that you might want to see it again just for the music.
Or for the acting: Clifton Duncan, as Haywood Patterson, is portrayed as the central Scottsboro Boy, with the strongest moral fibre. But the entire cast in this ACT production is terrific, possessing all the requisite skills — vocal, physical, comedic, emotional, transformational — to give the unsavory story full dramatic impact.
You may not crack a smile throughout — I didn’t — but that’s exactly as it should be.
The Scottsboro Boys
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes July 22
Tickets: $20 to $95
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org