If anyone is tired of theater that only offers mindless escape to its viewers, then I highly recommend rushing to the HERE Arts Center where James Scruggs's stunning multimedia performance piece Disposable Men demonstrates the socially transformative work that theater can do. Focusing on the long and complex history of physical violence committed on African American men, as well as the parallel narrative of stereotyped media representations of black individuals, Disposable Men is not easy or comforting theater in the least. The show's unflinching look at racism points a finger at the audience and doesn't let anyone off the hook.
The brilliance of Scruggs's work, with its sharp direction by Kristin Marting, stems from its carefully orchestrated use of video images and stock footage from films that depicts the horrific treatment of African American men at the hands of white perpetrators. The work opens with a prologue of film clips in which the "Brother Always Dies First," while another video of Scruggs makes wisecracking comments on the projected proceedings. The grusomeness of these images, though made fun of by Scruggs, soon becomes purposely overwhelming as the cinematic piling up of black male bodies clearly reinforces the supposed "disposability" of African American men.
The rest of the evening focuses on a variety of abuses committed on the bodies of black men: slavery, medical experimentation, incarceration, minstrel shows, and outright murder. Scruggs wisely refrains from lecturing to his audience and instead creates a series of vignette-like stories where he takes on the guise of various characters. In one tale, Scruggs plays a "lynch nigger" who works at a fictitious theme restaurant in New York called Supremacy, where African Americans re-enact (for low wages of course) the white "fantasy" of a pre-emancipation 1860s America. At Supremacy, violence against blacks becomes a commercial venture where whites, while chowing down on Southern food, can pay to have blacks "lynched" at their dinner tables. Like the incisive outrageousness of Spike Lee's minstrel show satire Bamboozled, Scruggs's work creates moments that are decidedly uncomfortable as the show imperceptibly moves from comedy to tragedy, forcing the audience to question their awkward bouts of laughter.
Scruggs's video design is pitch perfect and inventively utilizes a variety of white surfaces (e.g. a KKK outfit, a blank photo album, white clothing) onto which he projects his images of lynchings, minstrel shows, and cross burnings. Some of the video is new footage, shot with NYC actors, but the biggest impact comes from the use of stock footage, namely those clips that show a bevy of film monsters (Frankenstein, King Kong, the Creature from the Blue Lagoon) in an effort to highlight how African American men have been dehumanized and literally persecuted by mobs of white people.
Disposable Men is a show that is incredibly visceral and refreshingly in your face. Scruggs works to make the audience feel implicated at every moment (particularly white audience members) by not letting viewers remain as complacent observers behind the theater's fourth wall. He hands out props to the audience throughout the play, forcing people to participate. In a particularly startling move, Scruggs gives each member of the audience a wooden gun with a laser beam attached while a video of a prerecorded "policeman" instructs the audience when and how to fire their "weapons" on Scruggs. With the audience poised to shoot, Scruggs takes on the role of real-life victim Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man who was killed by four NYPD police officers who thought Diallo was a suspected rapist. As Scruggs's policeman describes how "scared" he and his fellow officers were of Diallo (despite Diallo's lack of a weapon), Scruggs's body soon becomes a virtual target as the audience re-enacts with their laser beams the forty-one shots that were inflicted upon Diallo. The gutsiness of this move on Scruggs's behalf is estimable and I, for one, found it a scarily disturbing moment.
As if the piece couldn't become any more horrifically breathtaking, Scruggs goes on to solicit from the audience the names of more black men who were the victims of police violence and draws the outlines of those victims' bodies on the theater floor. It is a shocking and moving image and one that again forces the audience to wake up and take note. Though it is often difficult for those of us who are white to truly experience and understand what people of color have to deal with on a daily basis, Scruggs gives his audience a moving and profound vantage point into the lives of the frequently "hunted" and demonized African American man.
As a longtime fan of Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" manifesto, which advocated physical in-your-face theater to shake up the audience and instigate political action, I always wondered how one might actually carry out Artaud's radical, but at times seemingly theatrically impractical ideas. Scruggs's work is the closest manifestation that I've ever witnessed to Artaud's call to action and for that reason alone, his work makes for compelling and exciting theater. That Disposable Men is invested in trying to remedy the long legacy of violence inflicted on African American men makes the piece even more pressing and required viewing.
HERE Arts Center