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The Scottsboro Boys: Racism in its nastiest form

FALSELY ACCUSED: The Scottsboro Boys

YOU’D THINK it would be hard for an actor to leave one job and embark on another one with only one day’s rest. But as Adebayo Bolaji explains, “as actors, that’s what we train for.”

Hot on the heels of his successful stint in the hit West End adaptation of The Color Purple, Bolaji is now undertaking a production of similar intensity, though the story itself is perhaps lesser known than Alice Walker’s famous novel-turned-movie.

Opening at The Young Vic this week, The Scottsboro Boys will bring to life the infamous tale of the nine young black men, aged between 12 and 19, who, in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931, had their lives turned upside down when they were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train.

Even though one of the women later recanted her accusation and in spite of a total absence of evidence, the boys were convicted. Their subsequent trials and appeals threw issues of racism and the right to a fair trial into the forefront and deeply divided the nation.

Bolaji undertakes the role of Clarence Norris, one of the so-named Scottsboro Boys, who was 19 when he was hauled from the train and falsely accused of rape. Norris was sentenced to death three times in a series of trials involving the false accusation and spent 15 years in prison.

It wasn’t until 1976, when Norris was 64 years old, that the Alabama Pardon and Parole Board unanimously found that he was innocent of the rape charges. He was the only one of the nine accused men who was found not guilty, and remarkably, it was only in April this year that the Scottsboro Boys Act was finally passed – a historic piece of legislation to posthumously exonerate the last eight of the nine boys.

Reflecting on the tale, Bolaji says he is able to identify with his Norris, who died in 1989.
“I can immediately relate to him in terms of being a young black man,” says the actor.

“These young men were taken to court after being falsely accused of rape, and it turned out to be a case that was just a massive miscarriage of justice. It portrayed racism in its nastiest form, with these boys basically being judged because of the colour of their skin.
Bolaji continues: “I’m 30 now and Clarence was 19 when this happened to him. While I’m older than him, I can still relate to him. Growing up in London as a young black guy, I have experienced situations where I was judged not because of who I am, but I’ve been objectified because of the colour of my skin.”

Recalling experiences where he felt his race was made an issue, Bolaji says his career in theatre has thrown up numerous questionable situations.

“I’ve heard things like, ‘oh, we can’t have two black guys in the cast’. And in some of those cases, it would have probably made more sense historically to have cast another black person, but for whatever twisted reason, that kind of nonsense does happen in theatre; people thinking it would look weird to have more than one black person in a cast.


MAKING A STAND: Adebayo Bolaji (centre and inset right) with the cast in rehearsals

“Or there have been times when I’ve auditioned for a musical and people have expected me to sound a certain way, because they expect all black people to sing or speak a particular way. And in earlier years, I saw casting breakdowns where they’d say they’re looking for ‘a man’ and in addition, they’re looking for ‘a black man’. So obviously when they said ‘a man’, they were looking for a white man, but they didn’t feel the need to objectify that person by race, in the same way they did the black man they were looking for. And sadly, people don’t see how that can sound really offensive.

He adds: “I don’t have any hang-ups about being black, but when things are written like that, it almost infers that being a black man is somehow a lesser thing than just being a man.”

Still, the actor feels there has been positive progression for black talents on the UK stage.

“Oh definitely,” he confirms. “This year in particular, the amount of black stories that have been told on stage in London has been amazing. You’re also seeing black people landing roles which, historically, would have been given to white actors, but producers are saying, ‘well actually, it doesn’t really matter what race the actor is.’ So things are a lot better now.
“We’ve got a way to go but there has been progress, which is great. I’ve been put up for all sorts of things so personally, I’ve been very lucky.”

Though he began acting in his teens in youth theatre, Bolaji took a break from the arts after relenting to pressure from his parents, who wanted him to study law.

“Long story short, my family was adamant that they wanted me to explore other areas, not just performance. My dad’s reasoning was that he wanted me, as a young black guy, to be able to walk into a room and have an opinion, and not just have people think, ‘Oh, you’re black so naturally you can sing, dance and act.’ As a Nigerian man coming to the West, my dad didn’t want me to experience the type of racism he did. He wanted me to be more rounded as an individual.

“I hated the course at the time,” he laughs. “But in hindsight, if I hadn’t done law, which enabled me to explore the other parts of me that exist, I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
After completing his law degree, Bolaji returned to his first love, and began training at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. After completing his training in 2008, the actor went on to land roles in productions including Ghost, Drive Ride Walk and One Dark Night, as well as a role in last year’s James Bond movie Skyfall.

Now gearing up to bring to life one of the most poignant race-related tales in America’s history, Bolaji urges audiences to come and see the show.

“I think it’s important to remember the value of human life, regardless of background and I think this production reminds you of that, but it does it in a way that’s not preachy.

“One minute you might find yourself laughing and being entertained, and the next you’re being thought-provoked. It is a serious story, but you’re not gonna walk in and be hit on the head with a preaching stick or anything like that.”

The Scottsboro Boys is at the Young Vic from October 18 - December 21. For more information, call 020 7922 2922 or visit www.youngvic.org

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