Theater Review: “Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show” — Look Forward in Anger
Sleeping Weazel stages a gutsy production of an angry, ugly, and essential history lesson.
3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show, conceived and written by James Scruggs. Directed by Mark Rayment. Staged by Sleeping Weazel at the Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through November 11.
By Bill Marx
For those wondering if the controversy revolving around race and American history has some significant kick in liberal Massachusetts (no Confederate statures here, at least that I know of), here’s a current event. This past Halloween, a Wheaton College student attended a party in blackface: she was dressed as a black character from the movie White Chicks and won second place in a costume contest. Apparently, there was an attempted student cover-up of the event when word got out. The women’s soccer team was barred from competing in the NEWMAC tournament game, effectively ending its season; a group of African-American students are calling for the woman to be punished, as well as others at the party. Cue the usual tired gaggle of arguments charging it’s all political correctness run amuck, some raising the flag of left-wing rectitude, and others insisting that everyone on both sides just needs to relax, why can’t we all get along, etc.
I had a heated exchange over the Wheaton story myself. Standing in line to see Sleeping Weazel’s lively, gutsy production of 3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show, an older woman turned to me and informed me, with obvious irritation, of the Wheaton incident. She went on to say that the soccer team shouldn’t have been barred from playing its game. As part of her defense, she told me she didn’t think that the Confederate statues should be taken down. “It’s history,” the woman intoned, emphatically, over and over again. I wasn’t sure if she was sincere or not. She seemed earnest, but might she have been joking? She wouldn’t (or couldn’t) answer a question that I asked a few times — just whose history was she referring to?
Thus the need for the angry/ ugly history lesson served up in James Scruggs’ collection of didactic skits and songs for three performers in blackface (via a stripped-down Boston version of the script’s recent New York production). The cast members — Michael Bryan, Vienna Carroll, and Wesley T. Jones — exude a satisfying mix of the casual and the caustic, sometimes bumbling, sometimes ballistic. They treat their horrifying roles, including some ingenious gender-bending, with an alarming sincerity, to the point that they can rile up a crowd.
The play’s subtitle sums up Scruggs’ political intent: “America’s original sin continues, in word, song and dance.” The mischievous goal is to send-up, with appropriately savage glee, a (still) popular tradition of racist dehumanization: grainy footage of minstrel shows, mixed in with snippets of performances from contemporary black performers, are projected against the back wall of the performance area. A good chunk of the evening features lampooned versions of minstrel entertainment, with fractured forays into haplessly mangled English, a ‘Yo Mama is So Fat’ contest, and ironically genial song and dance numbers, including one that details subservience in the coal mines. This genre of sadistic comedy, fueled by the sick laughter of scapegoating, will be familiar to those who took in The Scottsboro Boys at Speakeasy Stage Company, though Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show thankfully lacks the reassuring filter of that musical. This show does not offer the respite of nostalgia: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,”” observed William Faulkner. Scruggs is interested in the monstrous (and murderous) ways in which the past manages to stay alive.
It is that concern with contemporary crimes that adds volatility to the evening. Around mid-way through, Trapped takes a deadly serious turn. Revealing the twist would involve giving away a crucial spoiler; suffice it to say that an effective attempt is made to challenge audiences (particularly whites) to grapple with their complicity in accepting the status quo, particularly the death of young black men at the hands of the police. The most powerful skit is the confrontation between performers mouthing the recorded words of President Donald J. Trump and writer James Baldwin: it is the hideously inert versus the hyper-articulate. Two sides of the American psyche — or is that history? — go ping-ponging back and forth, the blunt and privileged bully versus his passionately diagnostic victim. Baldwin analyzed just how powerfully racism has deformed white America, morally and spiritually. Scruggs’ vision of hermetically sealed worlds talking past each other leaves you feeling helpless rather than empowered. And, given all the trite excursions into empowerment we are being served these days, that is a good thing.
“All art,” Baldwin wrote, “is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story, to vomit the anguish up.” There is nothing in the least oblique about the point-scoring in 3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show. But the anguish is there and, at a time most of our theaters are increasingly indifferent to everything but the vicissitudes of marketing, it is mighty refreshing to see.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.