The Playwright Setting Fire to the Race Card
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a punch in the gut usually gets people talking.
The man at the tattoo booth looks clean-cut and friendly as he offers bystanders a selection of images to stamp on their skin. Once they step closer, however, and see that the temporary tattoos are symbols of white supremacy — the Iron Cross, SS Bolts — the attendees of 3/Fifths, a multimedia play in New York City, appear visibly unnerved.
An absorbing — and at times horrifying — interactive drama spanning three hours and several hundred square feet at the 3LD Art & Technology Center, 3/Fifths features a “noose-making” stand, a satirical “Selfies With Homies” photo booth and a video game called “Rough Ride,” in which players use controls to shake an animated van and watch as a Freddie Gray-like figure gets hurled around. Following the interactive piece, titled the “Atrocity Carnival,” audience members watch a stage production recounting the story of “SupremacyLand,” the white-power theme park they just unwittingly patronized.
In the back stands James Scruggs, surveying the mixed crowd drawn to his absurdist, incendiary social experiment. “Even in print reviews, white people … said they were uncomfortable. At first, I thought, Nice! As a Black man, I feel uncomfortable most of the time,” says Scruggs, 61, an easygoing man with a graying beard and a boyish enthusiasm for pushing boundaries. “But then I realized that anything that makes them feel uncomfortable has traditionally put a stop to the conversation, and racism is at a point where white people have to be able to talk without walking away.”
New Yorkers may be willing to engage on hot-button topics, but as Americans enter another summer in which the racial barometer ticks higher — starting with the acquittals in May and June of two police officers charged with killing Black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and St. Paul, Minnesota, and the armed takedown of Civil War monuments in the South — a show like 3/Fifths could inch these uneasy talks forward. Or it could further stoke the flames of discord.
And 3/Fifths — referring to the slavery and congressional representation clause in the U.S. Constitution — aggressively avoids any middle ground. From the point of entry, attendees tell a blind ticket-taker whether they want to participate in 3/Fifths as a Black or a white person — and their foreheads get marked with their chosen color. Then there’s the N word affixed to all the Black workers’ name tags. Finally, the stage play tells the story of a Black ex-convict who takes the only job he can find — at SupremacyLand.
The idea that we are post-racial — that the harms have been addressed — is a lie.
Kevin Cunningham, artistic director of 3-Legged Dog
Race holds center stage throughout, as white audience members confront the prejudice and cruelty of their ancestors while Blacks bear witness to the degradation of their people, from slavery to the present injustices of the prison industrial complex. The performance is an endurance test for the audience — and demands enormous fortitude of its actors, who spend hours simulating barbaric acts. “At the end of every night, we had to reclaim ourselves,” Scruggs says of the cast.
Scruggs grew up in blue-collar New Jersey and attended the School of Visual Arts film school in New York. After “sweeping floors at some major studios,” he eventually got hired as the technical director for Windows on the World, atop the former World Trade Center. On September 11, when 74 of his co-workers died in the terrorist attacks, he says he “decided to not be apologetic anymore and not be afraid to do my art.”
Disposable Men, his first major show (in 2005), juxtaposed images from horror movies with the mistreatment of Black men in America. It caught the attention of New York’s experimental scene, and he went on to create multimedia productions about Black coming-of-age, celebrity worship and sexual violence for such venues as Dixon Place and the Tribeca Arts Center.
Eager to revisit the themes in Disposable Men, Scruggs used funds from an Andrew Mellon Foundation MAP grant to research African-American history and the culture of slavery, lynching and post-Reconstruction America. The experience was wrenching. “I could sit through all of the horrible photos during the day, but show a commercial with a puppy on TV and I would cry for hours,” he says.
From those efforts 3/Fifths was born, a work that breaks new ground visually and conceptually, with immersive video, performance, music and radical interactivity. What’s more, according to Kevin Cunningham, executive artistic director of 3-Legged Dog, the company that produced 3/Fifths, it is innovative because it has a social conscience but doesn’t preach — “and there are very few artists who can pull that off.” Cunningham continues: “The idea that we are post-racial — that the harms have been addressed — is a lie. James created a situation in which people who came were able to strip that away, and realize this is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed.”
It was a sentiment I heard echoed by many who attended 3/Fifths over Memorial Day weekend. “It’s an authentic representation of the marginalization of Black people throughout our history,” a Black audience member told me, though she declined to give her name. “The Black experience is still up for interpretation, while other atrocities, such as the Holocaust, are given truisms.”
Now that 3/Fifths has completed its run in New York, Scruggs, Cunningham and company hope to take the show on the road this fall to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. For Scruggs, it would be a “dream come true” to extend the tour through the South next year; he’s currently applying for grants to make it happen.
Till then, he’s relying on audiences to push the dialogue about race forward, and he’s found voices in surprising places. “It’s the international reaction that has interested me the most,” he says. “I’ve had people from Brazil and Canada come up and say that it’s not their history, but they could completely relate … I guess 3/Fifths is universal in that every culture has someone to look down upon.”