Playwright: Mark Stein, music and lyrics by Harley White Jr. At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: $42. Runs through: Aug. 27
The title references a real-life chapter in our nation's history, but this is not another cut-and-dried, preserved-under-glass docudrama. Likewise, its subtitle promises "An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow," but don't worrythe sorrow doesn't come until after the "vaudeville" has supplied so much merriment, you'd almost think this was the Kander and Ebb musical of similar name.
The story related by the nine African-American teenagers who serve as narrators/performers of the play-within-the-play tells how, on one spring day in 1931, they all happened to be hitchhiking on the same freight trainalbeit in different carstraveling the Tennessee border from Chattanooga to Memphis. Following an altercation with some of their fellow stowaways, the lads were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama, after two other illegal passengers on board were discovered to be ( white ) women, both of whom declared that the ( African-American ) men had raped them. Despite overwhelming evidence of the latter's innocence, courts adhering to regional custom continued to find them guilty, drawing national attention for the six years that the Death Row inmates waited for the verdict that would decide their futures.
Authors Mark Stein and Harley White Jr. illustrate these events with popular variety acts of the day: straw-hat-and-cane hoofing, multiethnic songs ( sentimental Stephen Foster ballads, dirge-tempo slave spirituals, even a "Danny Boy" ), cross-talk comic patter, sleight-of-hand illusions and loose-limbed acrobatic clowning. David Knezz' expressive masks caricaturing the visages of the white participantsdrooping bloodhound features for Attorney-General Thomas Knight, for example, or a dainty curlew's beak for Defense Attorney Samuel Leibowitzeases any guilt engendered in urban audiences identifying along colorist lines. ( Far left-wingers may face problems with International Labor Defense's Joseph Brodsky depicted as a nimble-fingered huckster. )
The danger in this irreverent approach is the propensity for actors to become carried away by their own daring, indulging in just one more shoulder-roll or extending a deep-south vowel just a second or two longer than necessary. This remount of last season's multiple award-winning production reunites director Michael Menendian's original cast, however, every one of whom exhibits chops honed to split-second perfection. Two-and-a-half hours may seem a lengthy history lesson, but never for an instant does our attention wander, whether chortling at the two top lawyers kicking up their heels in a jubilant tap-dance or stifling our horror at the abuse inflicted on the youngest convicts in the prisons. If you missed this show its first time, don't make that mistake again.