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Theatre in Review: 3/Fifths (3LD Art & Technology Center)

Natalie Chapman. Photo: Skye Morse-Hodgson

We've had so many plays about the apocalyptic future recently that it was only a matter of time before artists started focusing on the apocalyptic present. Perhaps taking their cue from Dismaland, the dystopian theme park installation by the rogue artist Banksy, the people behind 3/Fifths have come up with SupremacyLand, "a place where people know their place" -- or so we are informed by the blonde Southern belle, dressed in a Confederate flag gown, who plays the role of docent. She adds, "This is the place where you can let your hair down and have good old-fashioned real American fun without the PC Police looking over your shoulder, telling you what you should think and do." She says quite a few other choice things, about such cherished institutions as sharecropping (or, as she puts it, "the first layaway plan"), lynching, and, of course, slavery; she also begins what will be a blizzard of usages of a certain word that begins with the letter N.

And we're off, taking part in the Atrocity Carnival, a series of games and attractions designed to celebrate the subjugation of black Americans. Some are merely tasteless: In Selfies with the Homies, you can pose with a gangsta-type character, dressed stereotypically, complete with glittering gold teeth. There's also a crime scene attraction, where you can plant fake evidence on the prone body of a black man. Or, in an exhibit titled Tattoo You, you can choose from an array of potential tattoos, including the Confederate flag, Pepe the Frog, and a swastika. Other attractions are aimed strictly at the jugular: The most nerve-rattling is the BDSM booth, which consists of several rooms. In one, you are encouraged to beat a dummy, representing a black man, with a baton, hitting the most sensitive parts of his body as many times as possible. In another, you are confronted with another dummy; donning a VR headset, it is transformed into a black man hanging by his hands. You shake a baton, which makes the sound of a whip cracking, and, via the headset, you hear the man reacting to the pain of the lash. At the conclusion, the victim turns around, revealing a giant erection. In the final room, a live actress, sporting fake breasts and enlarged rear, performs a lewd dance, silently urging you to put a hand on her. I refused.

In the center of the Atrocity Carnival is a performance space, where, among other offerings, a comedian named Jim Crow tells jokes like the following: "What's the worst thing you can call a black man, starting with an N and ending with an R? Neighbor" or "What's the difference between a large pizza and a n----r? A pizza can feed a family of four." He ends up being co-opted by a white member of the audience with jokes of his own: "How do you save a black man from drowning? You don't." and "What do you call a black guy in a tree with a briefcase? Branch manager." Later, there is the Lefty Liberal, who spouts such bromides as, "With equal opportunity, affirmative action, and the fact that we just had a black president, we just need to move on."

As assaultive as all this is -- and I am merely skimming the surface here -- I admired the sheer nerve and invention of The Atrocity Carnival, its willingness to make us face the thousand and one ways in which racial prejudice is embedded in American culture. It is, of course, a profoundly uncomfortable experience. (Note to all those tender college-age youths I keep reading about, who burst into tears when confronted with the ugly facts of life: Give this one a wide berth; the production is one giant trigger warning.) I admit to being slightly alarmed at the number of people who seemed to regard it all as a lighthearted charade, to the point of happily joining in to the country line-dancing session, but these audience reactions probably only confirm the necessity of such a confrontational entertainment.

And if the entire evening consisted of nothing but the Atrocity Carnival, it would be worth your time and attention. But, as it happens, it is only the first half of the evening; the audience is next ushered into the cabaret, which is presided over by a half-comic/half-sinister neo-Nazi figure known as the General. There is a brief pause in the action, during which we see a montage of sequences from films ranging from The Shining to Planet of the Apes, in which black men are killed, while two "audience n------s" (as they are identified in the script) shout across the room to each other. Thus commences a drama focusing on Lyle Watson, an ex-con who is interviewed by an apparent social worker named Mammy -- in reality, an employment recruiter working for SupremacyLand. As she points out, Lyle's chances of getting a job in the real world are nil, so why not consider signing on as a cast member at the Atrocity Carnival? Lyle falls for this line, making a decision that he will instantly come to regret.

The scene between Lyle and Mammy unfolds on video; after that, they are on stage along with the General and other employees. What follows is even more brutal than anything found in SupremacyLand. The General discusses his "n----r snuff film initiative." Mammy, who sexually services the General, takes to the stage to perform a little ditty that begins, "Ten little n----r boys sat down to dine/One choked his little self/And then there were nine," working her way down to one. Lyle comes to realize that he is more or less a prisoner in his new job, a twenty-first-century slave in a twenty-first-century theme park -- and if you don't think there is going to a lynching on stage before it is all over, you simply haven't been paying attention.

Obviously, James Scruggs, the writer, and the directors, Tamilla Woodard and Kareem Fahmy, have put an enormous amount of thought and creativity into this project. The same goes for David Ogle, scenic designer for the Atrocity Carnival, and Christopher and Justin Swader, scenic designers for the cabaret. (The latter is especially clever, featuring a stage with additional playing areas on either side, which allows the story of Lyle's unhappy tenure to unfold with all due speed.) Other fine contributions are made by Ayumu POE Saegusa (lighting design), Andreea Mincic (costume design), Mark Van Hare (original music and sound design), Melanie West (sound design), Jamie West (additional sound design), Cam Vokey (video projection design), and Jon Bremner (video design). The video design is especially striking, beginning with the racist films, television shows, and commercials shown on the wall during the introductory sequence with the docent and continuing through the Atrocity Carnival, where, among other things, the General discusses his petition to keep dark-skinned blacks off television. ("Say 'Hell, no' to Gabourey Sidibe!")

Nevertheless, 3/Fifths is a nearly unendurable experience. The artists involved press their case so relentlessly, detailing their catalogue of horrors at such great length, the only possible response is numbness. They intentionally confront the audience with the poisonous fruit of racism -- not an easy job at 3LD, where the last time a member of the political right attended a production was, well, probably never -- but the crushing overlength and constant repetition simply made me want to get the hell out of there.

Now more than ever we need artists who are willing to confront the racism embedded in American life -- the more strongly, the better. But 3/Fifths overplays its hand, recklessly and endlessly. I suppose the production comes with its own built-in defense system: If you don't like it, you're just another Lefty Liberal, unable to face one's complicity in a racist system. But, in its relentless assault on one's sensibilities, 3/Fifths begs one to shut it out. By the time it finally reached its ghastly conclusion, I couldn't have cared less. -- David Barbour

(11 May 2017)

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