Review: Direct from Death Row–The Scottsboro Boys (Raven Theatre, 2016)

| August 13, 2016

Brandon Greenhouse, Breon Arzell, Charli Williams, Tamarus Harvell, Katrina D. Richard and Semaj Miller in Scottsboro          
Direct from Death Row:
   The Scottsboro Boys

Written by Mark Stein
Music/Lyrics by Harley White, Jr.
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
thru Aug 27  |  tix: $37-$42  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Unforgettable history lesson makes us wonder
how far we’ve really come


Direct from Death Row, The Scottsboro Boys - Raven Theatre Chicago

Raven Theatre presents
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys
   (An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow)

Review by Duane Barnes

With Playwright Mark Stein’s Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, the audience is brought a piece of history not found in many text books, but done in such a way as to make it unforgettable.

Tamarus Harvell, Semaj Miller and Anna Dauzvardis in Scottsboro Boys, Raven TheatreIn 1931, nine young African Americans boys (Negroes in those days) were falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight train, were jailed, then put on trial for their lives. Scottsboro, Alabama was the trial location and the boys, none of them from Scottsboro and somewhat unknown to each other until jailed together, became known as The Scottsboro Boys.

The ensemble of actors bringing this story to the stage are all African American, 6 male and 3 female, talented and filled with an energy that brings this tale to its audience with a verve that never falters. In addition, seven of the nine actors play the roles of white men and women using masks especially created for this play and which, in the eyes of this reviewer, are artistic masterpieces and which become integral pieces in the presentation of this event.

There are moments when the audience is engulfed in laughter, at other times riveted on one or another of the actors when other moments became intense, but attention never wavered. As we are taken on this historical journey of not just one but several trials, we are carried along with the highs and lows of the characters as each of the boys sees possibilities of freedom, only to see these hopes dashed as proceedings stretch out year after year. And during this time, were groups come to save them, some with honest intentions, others with questionable ones. As the story progresses, there’s an awareness that many similar situations involving race have been happening in the present day and age, and the question arises “How far have we really come?”

Frederick Harris, Anna Dauzvardis and Katrina D. Richard in Scottsboro Boys, Raven Theatre Chicago Katrina D. Richard, Anna Dauzvardis. and Tamarus Harvell in Scottsboro Boys, Raven TheatreKatrina D. Richard, Charli Williams, Kevin Patterson and Semaj Miller in Scottsboro Boys, Raven TheatreKevin Patterson in Direct from Death Row Scottsboro Boys, Raven Theatre Katrina D. Richard, Charli Williams and Brandon Greenhouse in Scottsboro Boys, Raven TheatreAnna Dauzvardis, Semaj Miller, Brandon Greenhouse, Breon Arzell, Charli Williams and Kevin Patterson in Scottsboro Boys

The masks, oh the masks, are sublimely creative and do so much to help set the time and place of the action – kudos to their designer, David Knezz. And the cast is right on the mark every step of the way. Kevin Patterson carried a load of dialogue with high energy throughout, connecting with the audience every minute he’s on. Andrew Malone’s white character, the New York Attorney, Sam Leibowitz, delights the audience with his body language. Semaj Miller, a Scottsboro boy, also plays the oily Southern prosecutor to a “T”. Anna Dauzvardis, in her role of the Scottsboro boy Ozie Powell, deftly portrays the character, slowly going to pieces as his incarceration drags on and on. Breon Arzell as Joe Brodsky, the Commie come to save the Boys, and Brandon Greenhouse as Walter White, the NAACP representative, do yeoman’s work with each other and the other “white men” in vaudeville type routines that bring much-needed lightness and comedy to an engrossed audience. Tamarus Harvell’s “white man” role as judge during one of the trials is presented with perfect somberness while still keeping us guessing as to whether he’s really going to be fair or a scoundrel. Charli Williams is a snippy Leroy and a soft caring Scottsboro mother, gently consoling her injured son. And there’s a special place in one’s heart for Katrina D. Richard, who plays the woman accusing the boys of rape in 1931 – nasty all the way to her dying day. But as Eugene, Richard presents a yet unsettling scene depicting being sexually assaulted while in prison that once again brings the question to our collective minds: how far have we come, really?

Brandon Greenhouse, Breon Arzell, Charli Williams, Tamarus Harvell, Katrina D. Richard and Semaj Miller in Scottsboro

Where else to throw bouquets? How about Frederick Harris, the Piano Man and music director? You almost forgot he’s there on stage until the dancing and the singing begins or as he added a staccato one note to emphasize specific pieces of dialogue. Add to the list Joe Court for his wonderful sound design, notable because, when you take your seat and settle down, you slowly become aware of a familiar sound, a clickety-clack of a freight train, slowly moving us towards our destination. And the sound also has the power to move you back in time, to 1931, and the travesty that was the Scottsboro Boys. Kat Dennis also deserves mention as choreographer for the dance routines of our black actors in white men’s masks which brings an occasional lightness to the play and a contrast to the hell that was for these boys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Running time for this highly recommended remount is 135 amazingly powerful minutes. Don’t miss it!

Rating: ★★★★

Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys continues through August 27th at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map), with performances Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $42 (teachers/seniors: $37, students/military: $18), and are available by phone (773-338-2177) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes a 10-minute intermission)

SPECIAL NOTE: Interesting post show conversations on August 14th and August 27th where social justice issues will be discussed By Kim Foxx, nominee for Cook County State’s Attorney; Lanetta Haynes Turner, Executive Director Cook County Justice Advisory Council; Elizabeth Clarke, Executive Director Juvenile Justice Initiative; and Veronica Williams, Mothers Against Wrongful Convictions.

Direct from Death Row, the Scottsboro Boys (An Evening of Vaudeville & Sorrow) - Raven Theatre

Photos by Dean La Prairie




Kevin Patterson (Haywood Patterson), Andrew Malone (Charlie Weems, Sam Liebowitz), Breon Arzell (Willie Roberson, Joe Brodsky), Semaj Miller (Olen Montgomery, General Knight), Brandon Greenhouse (Andy Wright, Walter White), Tamarus Harvell (Clarence Norris, Judge Horton, Prosecutor), Katrina D. Richard (Eugene Williams, Victoria, Old Victoria, Scottsboro Mother), Anna Dauzvardis (Ozie Powell, Ruby Bates Scottsboro Mother), Charli Williams (Leroy Wright, Scottsboro Mother), Frederick Harris (piano player), Dionne Addai, Becca Browne, Brian Nelson (understudies)

behind the scenes

Michael Menendian (director), Frederick Harris (musical director), Kathleen Dennis (choreographer, magic consultant), Sarah Jo White (costume design) Ray Toler (scenic design), Mary O’Dowd (properties design, set dressing), Diane D. Fairchild (lighting design, master electrician), Joe Court (sound design, projection design), Jason K. Martin (dialect coach), David Knezz (mask design). Merje Veski, Eileen Rozycki (scenic artists), Jaqueline Wills (assistant director, dramaturg), Melissa Geocaris (asst. light design, master electrician), Cathy Darrow, Kate Masiak (stage managers), Becky Cagney (asst. stage manager), Conor Clark (technical director), Nathan Waters (carpenter), Brian Pastor (executive director), Joann Montemurro (co-artistic director), Cody Estle (associate artistic director), Dean La Prairie (photographer)

Charli Williams , Anna Dauzvardis, Katrina D.  Richard, Brandon Greenhouse, Kevin Patterson and Andrew Malone Breon Arzell, Samaj Miller and Andrew Malone in Scottsboro Boys, Raven TheatreDirect from Death Row, The Scottsboro Boys - Raven Theatre Chicago 2 Katrina D. Richard and Charli Williams in Direct from Death Row, Scottsboro Boys


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Category: 2016 Reviews, Duane Barnes, Extensions-Remounts, Raven Theatre, Video, YouTube

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