Should you laugh or cry? That's the question as you sit in the darkened Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles watching the musical "The Scottsboro Boys."
One of the most notorious cases of racial injustice in our history is being played out on the stage as a minstrel show with Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, the Interlocutor, the cakewalk and all of the other ingredients of the minstrel tradition.
Should you laugh or cry when one of the Scottsboro Boys looks at the audience and asks, "This time can we tell the truth?"
The year was 1931. The place was Jackson County, Alabama. Nine young African American men, ages 13 to 19, most of them strangers to each other, were falsely accused of raping two white women; pulled from a train; arrested and tossed into prison. They were found guilty by all-white juries in multiple trials and sentenced to death each time, even though one of the women recanted her story, and there was no other evidence.
The case became a national symbol of the gross and brutal treatment of African Americans in those days, especially in the South.
The Scottsboro Boys were all eventually released. In April of this year the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to allow posthumous pardons for them, and Gov. Robert Bennett signed it into law. Guess that means the shelf life of a lie in Alabama is more than 80 years.
Should you laugh or cry as you inhale the rich score, the equally admirable lyrics and the risqué humor written by the team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, who also brought "Chicago" and "Cabaret" and many other musicals to Broadway?
The conflict of emotions increases as you remember growing up in the late '30s and '40s and early '50s in Mississippi. As you remember the young black man who crafted and sold us kids those beautiful kites that would fly like angels, and who was killed by a white man for no reason. The price the killer paid: Six months in jail.
As you remember the poll tax and other phony obstacles that stripped people from voting rolls until finally eliminated, or all of the white-only signs enforced by illegitimate laws, on bathrooms, theaters, restaurants, hotels, churches and schools. The list is longer.
As you remember visiting the spot on the side of the road in Philadelphia, Miss., where the bodies of three young civil-rights workers were left after they were murdered. Or recall Emmett Till, the teenager from Chicago who was slain in the Mississippi Delta, or the thousands of other atrocities that have been committed under the ungodly umbrella of racism in this country.
The music goes on and the memories continue to float through your mind: The actions of the White Citizens' Council, the bombing of the Birmingham, Ala., church and the four children killed, Bull Connor and the dogs in Selma, the violence as James Meredith entered Ole Miss.
The truth is that "The Scottsboro Boys," directed and choreographed with dizzying energy and enthusiasm by Susan Stroman, leaves you with a range of emotions, a strange mixture of delight and sadness, of doubt and hope, of pessimism and compassion.
The minstrel version of this traumatic and ugly piece of history ends, but real life goes on. The Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act, which so many men and women risked their lives to achieve. Affirmative action teeters on the edge. Immigration reform has a huge wall it must negotiate. Paula Deen reminds us all of the pain inflicted by our words.
But there is also some good news in the mix. The Defense of Marriage Act is knocked down and Proposition 8 is gone.
Should we laugh or cry as we watch the story unfold?
Or just stop for a moment and look into a mirror and repeat these words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his earliest speeches:
"I cannot be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You cannot be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
If everyone could live into those words there would surely be a lot more laughter and a lot fewer tears.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Bee and vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.