3/Fifths :: Examining America, Coming to Boston

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday October 26, 2017

America was still a fledgling nation when, in 1787, at that year's Constitutional Convention, delegates from Northern and Southern states put their heads together to work out a vexing problem: How should the slaves in Southern states be counted? If they were nothing more than property, why should they be considered when working out how much representation -- and therefore how much influence -- those states should have in the federal government? On the other hand, if they were people -- like anyone else; like whites, for example -- and merited counting the same as whites, then how could their captivity and forced labor be countenanced?

The delegates worked out a compromise that was hardly Solomonic. Each slave, it was was determined, would be viewed as counting for three-fifths as much as a white person.

It's possible to hear echoes of that ringing injustice and feel the vibrations of its rhetorical shakiness even now. It's in the hollow sound of cries that "all lives matter" when no one said they didn't; it's in the tremors of anguish and conscience the nation registers when another black man is gunned down by police officers; its specter looms over attempts to disenfranchise black voters and stuff African-American youths into a school-to-prison pipeline that, let's face it, doesn't even always include the part involving school.

And it's most certainly in the ground-shakingly thunderous advance of white supremacy in the months since Donald J. Trump took office as the 45th president of the United States, a nation still schizophrenically afflicted by inconsistent and irrational policies and attitudes, especially when it comes to race.

James Scruggs tackled these issues last spring when he created a satirical immersive theater experience that was part racist carnival and part stage production. The show was titled "3/Fifths," and its three-hour presentation included a wander through nightmare sideshows in a theme park dubbed SupremacyLand. A wheel of fortune determined whether one might get lynched, and for what trivial (or imaginary) offense; a helpful carny demonstrated the tying of nooses; African-American performers were left nameless, identified only with tags emblazoned with the N-word.

The thing is, for some people -- black and brown people, that is -- such is not the stuff of satire or even pointed horror/satire. It's the stuff of everyday life, and it's far from amusing.

Sleeping Weazel brings Scruggs to the Boston Center for the Arts for a 90-minute new piece based on "3/Fifths" titled "3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show." The minstrel show of yore that this production references is, of course, even more profoundly twisted in that it involved white actors wearing blackface; America's past is rife with minorities (racial, ethnic, and even sexual) whom the mainstream countenanced only insofar as they might be harmless and amusing. It happened with African Americans, yes, but also with Irish immigrants (think "Tin Pan Alley") and it happens still with GLBTs. ("Will and Grace" helped us break down the closet door -- no one denies that -- but when you get down to it, that show was, and is, a gay version of a minority striking an entertaining pose.) The current idea of what constitutes a "culture war" is quite different from -- though not necessarily divorced from -- the strategy of winning cultural acceptance through artistic means.

With so many intersectionalities of history, social justice, and theater in play, EDGE couldn't resist the opportunity to chat with Sleeping Weazel's artistic director, Charlotte Meehan, and also with James Scruggs himself to find out more about the show, how it came to Boston, and what audiences might expect.

EDGE: Will the Sleeping weasel production of "3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show" be a new version of the half-interactive, half-stage play "3/Fifths" that played in New York City last spring? Or is this going to be a whole new show from James Scruggs?

Charlotte Meehan: The answer is both. On the one hand, this is an entirely new piece performed by three actors, while in contrast the original "3/Fifths" comprised a cast of 22, the first half of which took place in a fantasy carnival, and the second half as a play taking place backstage at the carnival, where the secrets of the characters' lives centered on their literally being prisoners of the carnival.

In this new piece, inspired by "3/Fifths," many of the same tropes about race weave through a 90-minute show that includes video, song, dance, storytelling, and audience competitions to upend our assumptions about minstrelsy and to zoom in for us on the contradictory nature of a culture obsessed with African-American entertainment while projecting danger onto the black male body, in particular. So, James is shaping a response to the same raw material from our culture but has made a different container for it through expanding the minstrelsy aspect of the original piece.

EDGE: Was it that New York production of "3/Fifths" that drew Scruggs and his work to your attention at Sleeping Weazel?

Charlotte Meehan: I was first drawn to James' work in 2008 when I saw his extraordinary solo show "Disposable Men," at the former Perishable Theatre in Providence, and I subsequently brought the piece to Wheaton College, where I am Playwright in Residence. Shortly after police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in 2014, I called James and said I wanted to bring "Disposable Men" to Boston. By that time, James was already working towards "3/Fifths," and we agreed that whenever he was ready, I would bring his new piece to Boston. Neither of us could have predicted at the time that "3/Fifths" would become the sprawling extravaganza that premiered in spring 2017 at 3 Legged Dog in New York, but I did indeed see that piece and was amazed by it.

EDGE: Mr. Scruggs, what sparked the idea (and in particular the format) for the show? Was this the result of years of accumulated ideas and observations, or did the whole thing sort of present itself to him in one go?

James Scruggs: Minstrel shows are a great lens to explore race, racism, supremacy and privilege through. It was literally the performance of blackness by white people. Actually, at the inception it was the performance of Irish and Jewish men -- who were not considered white -- performing white men, performing blackness. In this show, I am interested in exploring the killing of unarmed black men through the white gaze and the black gaze.

EDGE: How did this collaboration come about?

Charlotte Meehan: James and I have been talking for more than two years about his progress on "3/Fifths." and I've kept in touch with him about its development with the anticipation of bringing the show to Boston. Because I was so familiar with his previous work, I knew that James would do something intellectually bold, aesthetically challenging, and politically confrontational, while at the same time bringing the audience into sublime moments of empathy. The process, especially in the end, when we finally settled on a three-character piece for feasibility, has been intricate and joyful.

EDGE: Given that Sleeping Weazel exists to produce theater that is socially conscious, and also to expand the boundaries of the theatrical experience, it seems that Mr. Scrugg's work is a natural fit for you. What are you hoping the typical audience member experiences at "Trapped in A Traveling Minstrel Show?" How will Sleeping Weazel put its imprimatur on the sow and ensure that its core messages are transmitted?

Charlotte Meehan: We'd be thrilled if audience members experience the devastating pain of racism while feeling and celebrating the energy, brilliance, and irrepressible creative spirit of the African American community.

Sleeping Weazel's motto, "making different possible," applies to this show in that we are asking audiences to metaphorically take a knee in solidarity with James Scruggs' artistic vision of resistance, recognition, and transformation. James' aesthetic - bold experimental work with a core of social justice values - not only matches ours but extends it. We want to invite all who come to see the show into a moment of mutual growth, vulnerability, and understanding.

EDGE: Mr. Scruggs, what is the essence of what you want people in his audience (of any background or ideological persuasion) to take away from the show?

James Scruggs: I want audiences to leave having laughed really hard and participated in the process to the extent of their willingness and work through whatever level of discomfort they feel to be able to enjoy the ride.

EDGE: Ms. Meehan, it's been a long process to bring "3/Fifths' Trapped in A Traveling Minstrel Show" to Boston, but after the tragic events in Charlottesville - and the unapologetic forward push of white supremacists in the wake of those shocking events - do you feel additional urgency to see this show go up?

Charlotte Meehan: I am desperately sad about what happened in Charlottesville and what continues to happen via white supremacy all over this country. So, yes, I do feel additional urgency about this show going up now, but I also feel that James had plenty to work with before these new, awful events took place. People need to see this piece because it does much more than respond to ongoing acts of horror; it hits at the core of our racist history, faces it all head-on through video art, documentation of real-life events, and immense acting and singing talent that transcends the pain and creates in us all a cellular desire for change that becomes a call to action.

EDGE: Mr. Scruggs, do you find that performers in the show have a hard time with the material? Are there those who take exception, or for whom it's just too emotionally taxing?

James Scruggs: We strive to take good care of the artists we work with. That means making the process safe for them to experience whatever they need to, to get to the point where they can deliver this difficult material. That said, sometimes actors have profound responses. The goal is not to strive for actor responses, but for audience responses.

EDGE: As an art form, what is theater's responsibility when it comes to social issues like racial injustice or political situations like the rise of a very dangerous and organized fringe right?

James Scruggs: I think the theater is responsible to allow work that illustrates a wide range of possibilities from the viewpoint of diverse artists come to stage.

EDGE: How do you calibrate your message so as to break through hardened attitudes and determined ignorance, and get through to people who just don't want to face the issues you're talking about?

James Scruggs: I see my task as an artist striving to provide mirrors for people to look at themselves in theatrically challenging situations, to implicate them and have them ask themselves, "Who am I now? How do I feel about this?"

EDGE: Ms. Meehan, a lot has been made of the idea that white supremacists have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump last year. What is your thinking on this? If Secretary Clinton had been elected, would the fringe right have been equally energized by the terrifying (to them) reality of a woman president?

Charlotte Meehan: I don't know, but likely not nearly as energized as they have been by Trump's emboldening of hate groups one and all. It has been argued that the election of Donald Trump (however fraudulent it may be) was caused in large part by a racist backlash against Barack Obama's presidency. If we were to say the same about a President Hillary Clinton, then it seems to me we would constantly be playing a game of rejecting progress to avoid regress. For me, the issue is that Donald Trump poses a serious danger to the country through selling hate for his personal gain.

EDGE: What's coming up for the remainder of Sleeping Weazel's season?

Charlotte Meehan: In mid-February, Sleeping Weazel will present "The Audacity," an interdisciplinary performance event showcasing new works in performance art, video, electroacoustic music, and participatory musical improvisation by SW Managing Director and interdisciplinary writer Adara Meyers, along with other New England-based artists including Thread Ensemble, Kirsten Volness, and Ioana Jucan. The event, which runs February 15-17 and 22-24 at the BCA's Plaza Black Box Theatre, will weave together urgent stories about migration, home, and cultural memory.

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

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.