In 1931, nine African American teenagers were arrested and brought to trial in Scottsboro, Alabama for allegedly raping two white women—and then sentenced to death. The charges, it soon became clear, were demonstrably false, and the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the fate of the Scottsboro Boys—as they became known—received international attention, and eventually became the subject of the 1935 Yiddish play Mississippi, written by the playwright Leyb Malakh (1894-1936) at the encouragement of the director and critic Mikhl Vaykhert (1890-1967), who staged it at his Warsaw theater. Alyssa Quint writes:
When I first came across archival artifacts from productions of Mississippi . . . I assumed that [it] was a translation. I had come across ephemera of so many translations from this era: a review of the Vilna Troupe’s 1924 version of Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play All God’s Chillun Got Wings, for example. . . . Directors saw translation as a way to introduce worldliness and sophistication to the Yiddish theater, and to engage with current social and political issues.
The script is also embedded with an array of original Yiddish songs by the celebrated composer Henekh Kon (1890-1970) who composed songs in the African American musical tradition including jazz, gospel, and African American spirituals. One makes reference to the enslavement of African people, and another refers to the part former slaves took in the Union army fighting in the Civil War.
Despite Vaykhert’s concerns that Polish Jewish theatergoers wouldn’t be interested in a play on so foreign a subject, Mississippi was a smash hit, enjoying a long run of over 200 performance.
Mississippi’ssuccess in the late 1930s worked off the energy of the Blacks’ and Jews’ common history of oppression. More remarkable, however, is the play as it reveals how much its Jewish participants, creators, and audience mustered sympathy for this mostly unknown African American subject matter, for how and where they lived, the particulars of their persecution, and for their cultural forms and traditions. Ironically, these are the least palatable aspects of the play, at least according to our standards [of political correctness] today.