Meet the Scottsboro Boys: The Origins of the Scottsboro Nine

March 25, 1931. A 44-car Alabama Great Southern youth bumming a ride in the hopes of finding a better financial future. As the train winds its way up a hill, there is an altercation between a small group of black and white boys resulting in the ejection of the white boys from the train. Word begins to travel that a group of aggressive black boys are terrorizing the white passengers, and ultimately reaches the authorities in Paint Rock, the next major stop on the line. As the train pulls into town, a local militia has already gathered ready to intervene and serve up mob justice.


Nine black boys, most of them strangers, are pulled off of the train and arrested for assault and attempted murder. Eugene Williams, Roy and Andy Wright, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Ozie Powell, Charles Weems and Haywood Paterson, who range in age from 13 to 19, are bound together with rope, placed on the back of a flatbed truck, and driven to Scottsboro’s small, two-story jail. As the boys are dragged away, local authorities discover two white girls from Huntsville, Alabama, Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, who had also stowed away on the train in search of employment and were, in part, supporting themselves through sex work. Price and Bates, both of whom had previous run-ins with the law, were afraid of how they might be charged and so, in the interest of self-preservation, lied, claiming that 12 black men had assaulted them with knives and a pistol, and taken turns raping them. Price and Bates alleged that three of the assailants had gotten away, but that the nine others were none other than the boys pulled from the train just moments earlier. So began the trials of the Scottsboro Boys.


Despite evidence that exonerated the nine boys, and even a retraction of testimony by Ruby Bates, the state of Alabama committed to pursue the case, and all-white juries delivered guilty verdicts for all nine of the boys. The case was appealed and retried in Alabama, and was ultimately heard twice before the United States Supreme Court to no avail, the nine boys would spend the majority of the remainder of their lives in prison, and, even post release, struggled to adapt to life after over a decade in the Alabama prison system. Simply put, the Scottsboro Boys trials were a devastating tragedy. As a political and social movement and a cultural symbol, however, the Scottsboro case played an immeasurable part in undermining the structures of white supremacy in Alabama, the South, and throughout the nation. The Scottsboro Boys trial became synonymous with the racial injustices of the Jim Crow South and, in the process, would serve as a direct precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.

On dealing with life’s tragedies.

“People think of me as a neurotic kid, full of fits and depressions, biting my fingernails to the bone, living under an eternal shadow of illness and collapse. Why do people insist on seeing an aura of tragedy around me always? My life isn’t tragic at all. I laugh a lot these days. At myself, too. Lord, if I couldn’t laugh at myself I don’t think I’d be alive.”

—to Herbert Kretzmer, 1960




On her love of audiences.

“You stand there in the wings, and sometimes you want to yell because the band sounds so good. Then you walk out and if it’s a really great audience, a very strange set of emotions can come over you. … A really great reception makes me feel like I have a great big warm heating pad all over me. People en masse have always been wonderful to me. I truly have a great love for an audience, and I used to want to prove it to them by giving them blood. But I have a funny new thing now, a real determination to make people enjoy the show. I want to give them two hours of just pow!”

—to Shana Alexander, 1961


On drinking.

“You know something? Someone came up to interview me this afternoon and said that people are saying I hit the bottle. Now, what does that mean—hit the bottle? Does it literally mean smacking the bottle? Or does it mean that I like to drink? I told the girl that I like to drink iced-tea, like to drink soup, like to drink vodka and tonic. And, anyway, what kind of a question is that?

—to John Gruen, 1967


On living as a ‘legend.’

“I’ve heard how ‘difficult’ it is to be with Judy Garland. Do you know how difficult it is to be Judy Garland? And for me to live with me? I’ve had to do it—and what more unkind life can you think of than the one I’ve lived? I’m told I’m a legend. Fine. But I don’t know what that means. I certainly didn’t ask to be a legend. I was totally unprepared for it.”

—to McCall’s, 1967


On whether she got sick of her signature song.

“[Am I] tired of ‘Over the Rainbow?’ Listen, it’s like getting tired of breathing. The whole premise of the song is a question. A quest. At the end, it isn’t, ‘Well, I’ve found my world and I am a success and you and I will be together.’ The lyric is having little bluebirds ‘fly over the rainbow. Why, oh, why can’t I?’ It represents everyone’s wondering why things can’t be a little better.”

—to a press conference in Cherry Hill, NJ, 1967






Judy, in her own words...


The Passionate Debate Over Porchlight's "Far From Heaven"

- "This is an unusual subject for a musical.” 

- “This made me recall back in the 1950s when we showed up to our hotel with our live-in black housekeeper – and our reservation suddenly ‘disappeared’.”

- “I remember my mother using the word ‘negroes’ when I was growing up. That’s just the way they talked.”

-“The father in the musical, his struggle with being gay, I know that guy. He was my uncle.”

These are just a few of the responses that audiences have offered to me in the lobby following performances of Far From Heaven. It’s the kind of conversation that is being generated in post show discussions, at the bar on intermission and, I understand, ongoing for days afterword following performances of this production.

Recently, two noted Chicago critics have come to verbal blows on air over their visceral response to the artistic approach to the subject matter, and passionate discussions have begun to arise regarding authors’ responsibility when interpreting the lives of people of a different race from a different time in our American history.


For us here at Porchlight Music Theatre, it is incredibly rewarding to learn that the kind of musical that Oscar Hammerstein II foresaw back in the 1920s, and that Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb advanced in the 1950s and ’60s has come to fruition and is thriving today; the kind of musical that GETS PEOPLE TALKING.

Far From Heaven is the story of a woman in her time - an American woman in a particular moment in America when there were certain “rules.” To again reference Oscar Hammerstein II, this is a woman who has been “Carefully Taught” to think a certain way.

These days, musicals based on films are nothing new as Hairspray, Sister Act and Saturday Night Fever demonstrate. But musicals that make us think - and even argue – about the artistic content, approach or message are rare and far between. Certainly Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, South Pacific, Annie Get You Gun and Show Boat are titles that, recently, have caused intense conversation due to content in the script or lyrics.

The source of Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’ 2002 multi award-winning film, painted an idyllic picture of 1950s life in America as seen through the distorted eyes one might observe in an “educational” film of the era. You remember those 16mm movies that taught us what it was to be a stand-up citizen, how to be “popular,” what was “normal” and what (or whom) to fear?

This stylized approach to the story of the spiritual and mental emancipation of the lead character, “Cathy Whitaker,” is key to understanding the artistic achievement that director Todd Haynes (in his film) and authors Scott Frankel, Michael Korie and Richard Greenberg (in their musical adaptation) have accomplished.

This is a musical that is engendering passionate responses from audiences and compelling conversation from the critics, eliciting personal recollections from a very complicated era in our country’s history and, more importantly, is making us all very proud that we have come so far to where we are today – and reminding us how far we have yet to go.

One critic ironically said she preferred Porchight's recent production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (a story clearly set in the repressive climate of late-1950s hetrosexual office politics and which is presented as a cartoony musical comedy lampoon) over Far From Heaven (another exploration of late-1950s repression, this of race and homosexuality, structured as a chamber musical.) The preference recalls the legendary face-off of the future of the American musical with La Cage aux Follies vs Sunday in the Park with George at the 1984 Tony Awards - the comfortably classic toe-tapping audience pleaser up against the ground-breaking, musically sophisticated artistic triumph.

Read the critical responses, enjoy the degree of raised voices in the conversation that this new musical is inspiring but, MOST IMPORTANTLY, see Far From Heaven for yourself (our limited run ends March 13) and then let your voice be heard by adding to the conversation.

I’ll see you at the theatre –

Michael Weber

Artistic Director     


Being Gay in 1950's America: The Lavender Scare

One of the most searing elements of the brilliant new musical Far From Heaven is its exploration of the social mores of "normal" citizens and the crippling dread of people who seemed not to be like ourselves. The strict perameters of what it was to be "perfectly appropriate" in our country went far beyond the openly bigoted man-hunts for African Americans or Senator Joe McCarthy's witch-hunts for depression era communists.   

Few Americans know that McCarthy also charged that the government had been infiltrated by homosexuals, and that they posed a threat equally as grave to national security. This fear that gay men and lesbians could be blackmailed into revealing state secrets resulted in a systematic campaign to identify and remove all government employees suspected of homosexuality. David Johnson, author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, argues that a parallel “lavender scare” permeated American cold war culture. But it also helped launch a new civil rights struggle.

When McCarthy made his unsubstantiated charges, the State Department at first denied that it employed any suspected communists. But under intense questioning from McCarthy’s Republican allies, they did admit that they had fired 91 homosexuals as “security risks.” A committee of the US Senate investigated “the employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government.” Although they could not uncover a single example of a homosexual American citizen who had betrayed secrets as a result of blackmail, they wrote a highly circulated and influential report that asserted that gay men and lesbians exhibited weak moral character and had a “corrosive influence” on their fellow employees. “One homosexual can pollute a government office,” the Senate report concluded. Based on little evidence, the attacks represented a way for Republicans, the minority party at the time, to attack the Democrats and the New Deal agencies they had created as centers of immorality.
In his book, Johnson concludes that the lavender scare, as it became routinized in the bureaucracy of the national security state, outlasted its more well-known cousin, the red scare. In the language of the 1950s and 1960's, “security risk” became a virtual code word for homosexual. Although the famous question “are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party” captured the attention of a national television audience during the McCarthy era, government investigators were posing another question at least as frequently, if more discreetly, but with similarly devastating consequences: “Information has come to our attention that you are homosexual. What comment do you care to make?” Ultimately Johnson argues that we cannot understand McCarthyism or cold war politics without examining the fears of gender and sexual non-conformity that permeated the era.

This adult and sophisticated componant of what it meant, day to day, to be gay in 1950's America is a potent dimention of this new musical by the creators of the Tony Award-winning Grey Gardens and The Goodman Theatre's upcoming War Paint, and it's one more reason Far From Heaven is a perfect musical for Porchlight's discerning music theatre audiences. Get your tickets for the highly anticipated Chicago Premiere of Far From Heaven at