3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show

Monday November 6, 2017

Wesley T. Jones, Vienna Carroll, Michael Bryan
Wesley T. Jones, Vienna Carroll, Michael Bryan  (Source:David Marshall)

James Scruggs, a New York City-based writer, performer, and producer, comes to Boston in partnership with Sleeping Weazel to pose some hard questions about race.

During the Obama era -- when so many things seemed saner than they do now -- we could hope to have a courteous and respectful discussion on racial issues in America. Such hopes now seem forlorn, and Scrugg's play "3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show" has adapted to the times. Enraged, outraged, exasperated, and confrontational, the show forces us to look at our nation's ugly past and contemplate the present. Questions of bias in policing and criminal justice come to the fore, as do issues of cultural appropriation; those two themes seem central to the project, and a lyric from the free-wheeling first musical number boils down the essence of what's in store with a concise couplet:

"Our existence ignites your hate

As our culture you appropriate."

There's a huge dollop of acid-washed nostalgia -- that is to say, callbacks to the bad old days. The performance space is dominated by an old-fashioned billboard that doubles as a screen where rear projections of vintage comedy acts flicker, right next to clips from contemporary music videos. (The scenic design is by Michael O'Reilly; Jason Batcheller provides the video design.) The advert here isn't for a new subdivision or a brand of shaving cream, but for persistent and irrational attitudes -- and the need to consciously, intentionally change them. Meanwhile, the deeper implication is impossible to miss: Ours is a culture that has long sustained itself on the narrative, musical, comedic, and stylistic innovations of people that are not celebrated for their contributions, but scorned for their artificially imposed place in the social hierarchy.

Wesley T. Jones, Vienna Carroll, Michael Bryan
Wesley T. Jones, Vienna Carroll, Michael Bryan  (Source: David Marshall)

In another callback to the bad old days, the two male actors (Michael Bryan and Wesley T. Jones) are in blackface -- a provocation that has more than surface meaning, though when what Scruggs is up to here is revealed, it constitutes a dramatic reversal that shocks you and shakes you out of your accustomed perspectives. With absolute clarity of purpose, Scruggs puts his finger on a central plexus of overlapping concerns, and presses hard.

The play is structured as part variety show, part game show, and part trial by jury, and the tone becomes more aggressive and volatile by degrees. A game show sets famous songs originated by African American artists against the later covers by white artists and invites opinion on which version is better -- but it also asks us to think about who actually made money off the music. In a more dramatic passage, two men offer their first-hand accounts of being subjected to modern forms of involuntary servitude and forced labor, and talk about the illusions and realities of serving jail time. The show is conceived and written by Scruggs, but director Mark Rayment pulls nary a punch. This is not a show that's going to accept a nod of concerned agreement and call it good, and you sense that the idea isn't even for the audience to agree with its message but rather to (finally, unambiguously) take that message seriously -- as seriously as those who must live in fear for their lives must take it. After 75 taut, increasingly distressing minutes, you walk out feeling uncertain of exactly what just happened, but suspecting you've just tasted the barest hint of the sort of unhinged abuse our system has unleashed on generations of Americans based on nothing but the color of their skin.

Vienna Carroll serves as interlocutor, emcee, and, finally, judge. Hers is a center of gravity that pulls the rest of the show into balance. When she launches into song, however, she transcends all those roles. This is a show with jagged edges and urgent demands, but it's not a stranger to the healing balm of mercy.

"3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show" continues through Nov. 11 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.sleepingweazel.com