Review by James Wilkinson
3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show. Conceived and Written by James Scruggs. Directed by Mark Rayment. Scenic and Graphic Design by Michael O’Reilly. Video Design by Jason Batcheller. Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle. Sound Design by Mark Van Hare. Choreographed by Nejla Yatkin. Makeup Artist: Brian Strumwasser. Presented by Sleeping Weazel through November 11.
There’s an inherent irony present in this review which I cannot help but appreciate. A white male is going to tell you what he thinks about a show that is very concerned with examining what happens when black men do not have control over their own narratives. If this is the kind of scenario that bothers you, then feel free to check out after this paragraph (I promise that I won’t take it personally). I’ll boil the review down to this: You should go see Sleeping Weazel’s production of James Scrugg’s play, 3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show. You should see it, form your own opinion on the work and contribute to the conversation that Scruggs and his director, Mark Rayment are trying to start.
Still with me? Fantastic…
Beyond the title, I didn’t know anything about the production when I entered the theater. So when I entered the space, I did what I usually do at a general admission show; I slinked back to the last row (I’m tall and try to be considerate of other audience members) and picked a seat where I figured that I could best sit back and observe the action. What I learned as soon as the lights came up and the show began proper, was that this isn’t a show that will allow the audience sit back observe. Those who come to the show should expect to engage in ways that they perhaps weren’t expecting. It may lead (as it did the night I attended) to some awkward moments and nervous glances, but that back and forth participation is how dialogues are started.
For the play’s text, playwright James Scruggs has essentially taken the elements of a traditional minstrel/vaudeville show as his toolbox. There is no plot to the piece, instead the piece resembles a patchwork quilt of skits and vignettes centered around two stock minstrel characters. And make no mistake, there’s no sugarcoating here. The actors commit to the look of the minstrel, complete with blackface, white gloves and lips and an oversized afro. My hat’s off to the piece’s three actors, Michael Bryan, Vienna Carroll and Wesley T. Jones. It couldn’t have been easy to agree to be in a show where they’ll either be in or acting next to an actor in blackface. But all three are wonderfully committed to the piece and that’s part of what makes the show work as well as it does.
It may be a jarring experience for audience members in 2017 to sit in a theater and watch an actor cross the stage wearing blackface. Out and out minstrel shows may not be prevalent as they were during the days of vaudeville, but as Scruggs reminded the audience during the post-show talk back, they do constitute America’s first significant contribution to the art form of theater. For many years, this was the mainstream depiction of black men and women in America. Whether we like it or not, this type of persona has seeped down into the groundwater of American culture. What are we to do then?
This is very much a piece that has one eye on the long arc of history. As the audience files into the performance space, a large screen plays juxtaposing video of tap dancing black characters from early cinema along with rap videos from the present day. It’s a simple but effective way to lay down the thesis for what’s to follow: How the past connects to the present and how depictions in media bubble over into real life. For another example, during an early monologue, one of the minstrel characters describes an encounter with a young woman where he realizes the power she has over him. If she screams and people come running, the man knows that they’ll see her as a helpless victim and him as the hulking brute. Behind the actor, a clip from King Kong plays with Fay Wray shackled to a pole, screaming at the approaching giant ape. These two ideas are presented side by side and a dialogue forms. By depicting pretty, young, white, blonde women as helpless victims in media, we’re predisposed to seem them that way, which leads to seeing black men as the de facto aggressors.
If I’m making the piece seem like a dry discussion of race relations, then I’m doing it a disservice. Minstrel shows were, in a sense, clown shows, and there’s a great deal of humor in Scruggs’ script and in Rayment’s staging. However, its humor that always comes with a bit of an edge. Just as the actors will score a laugh, they’ll follow up with a line or an action that starts to make you uncomfortable. And while the show appears to be very loose and piecemeal, when you step back, you can appreciate the larger structure at work. The humor at the beginning of the play draws the audience in so that the play can twist into a more serious direction as it moves to its conversation about the present day.
If you see the show, plan on staying for the talk back. Sleeping Weazel will be having one after each performance and I don’t see how you can experience the show without it. This isn’t a piece that’s looking to assign blame, point fingers or lecture. Instead it looks to begin the difficult conversations that must be had about race in America and to invite you to the table. I hope you’ll join in.
3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show is playing November 3-11, 2017 at the Nicholas Martin Hall at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.sleepingweazel.com