by Evan McKenna
‘Three Fifths Traveling Minstrel Show’ – Created and Written by James Scruggs. Directed by Mark Rayment. Presented by Sleeping Weazel at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont St. Boston, through 11/9
We live in an age when too much political discourse takes place over Facebook and Twitter, where we can safely hide our opinions behind screen names. We can choose to ignore the perspectives of those whom we disagree with and move on. But that liberty is lost when you are confined to an intimate room with a diverse audience, where a play about racial issues is being staged. Such was the case with James Scruggs’ tense and confrontational “Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show” which made its debut at the BCA.
The show actually begins before curtain: Modernist, swing renditions of everything from early 2000s hip-hop to Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom,” play on a large video screen before the actors take the stage. Soon Wesley T. Jones and Michael Bryan – both sporting traditional minstrel show black-face and vibrant suit jackets that capture the flare of performers of that era – and ringmaster Vienna Carroll, sans blackface, enter. Together the three move, clap, and rhythmically engage with the audience in a wildly theatrical dance, which, juxtaposed with blackface, is alternately entertaining and disturbing.
While Bryan, Jones, and Carroll artfully execute a parody of old school minstrel shows, the audience is now sucked into the role of the typically white minstrel show crowd. As we are being entertained on one level, we are shown the lives of these characters outside of their performance – and it is quite uncomfortable. Jones’ character gives a monologue about the dangers of being romantically involved with white girls as a video of King Kong grabbing Fay Wray streams on video in the background; and Bryan’s character details the horrors of life in prison for young black men.
The audience participates further when Carroll referees a “yo mama” battle, where the crowd must vote for the better racist joke; followed by a game show that Carroll introduces as, “Who Stole it Best,” which addresses cultural appropriation – specifically white artists who profited off versions of black music). Here the audience make themselves vulnerable by voicing their opinions as to which version is better, the “black” or the “white” – in a public forum.
The level of intensity does not slow in the second half of the show, where we are transported to present day. As the second act opens Bryan’s character wipes off his makeup to reveal to the audience that he is actually white himself, and a discussion on the degree of responsibility that whites should feel towards the oppression of blacks begins.
The play then uses video to display the real footage of numerous police shootings of people of color, as a court scene is set up with Carroll as the judge, Bryan as the white offender, and Jones as the black, deceased victim. In this moment, the audience’s participation becomes much more involved, as we play jury for cases similar to and including Michael Brown case in Ferguson.
This serious tone sustains as the show ends with Bryan voicing Donald Trump’s hate speech, and Jones voicing James Baldwin’s profound comments on civil rights. The story shows that while the make-up may have been removed from people of color, the stereotypes and social outlook have not. In a humble manner, Scruggs shows us the way that people of color have been trapped in a never-ending minstrel show, and while it is explained with much humor, it leaves the audience with a punch in the gut and a reason to think more about racial inequality. For more info, go to: http://www.sleepingweazel.com/