From the moment you step through the doors of 3LD (the 3 Legged Dog in lower Manhattan), 3/Fifths is immediately and literally divisive. You face a blind woman who asks you, “Black or white?” and as soon as you make your choice, your options narrow. There is no possibility of experiencing everything that ‘Supremacyland’ has to offer. For a generation that grapples with FOMO (the fear of missing out), your best bet is to bring a friend who’s willing to split paths with you and share notes afterwards. That’s what I did.
For the purposes of the show, I answered the blind woman, “Black,” while my friend Lesly answered white. Neither of our appearances matched our ‘chosen’ race, but in my friend Lesly’s case being black, it made him nervous; he stopped a cast member before the show to ask, “Excuse me, I chose to be white, but (pointing to himself to indicate he was obviously not white) I don’t know what to expect.” She looked at him – a streak of white grease paint on his forehead – and said plainly, “You white!” And that was that.
The fact of our race is the entire material of the show. As you wander around James Scruggs’ vision – an interactive carnival called Supremacyland and a perfect use of the massive 3LD venue – you realize that race is not just what’s been written on our foreheads but the canvas upon which everything else is written. At one station, ‘white’ participants can even have swastikas ‘tattooed’ onto their skin.
As I elected to be black for the experience, the disadvantages of my choice were quickly made clear. While my friend received ten Supremacy dollars, I received two. As any kid at a carnival can attest, two dollars doesn’t get you far. Within the construct of Supremacyland, most of the opportunities to ‘earn’ more dollars were predicated on having some spending money to begin with. The message is clear, and viscerally felt: in a ‘merit-based’ system, what we start out with matters, and the ‘equal opportunities’ to advance in this society are largely dependent on one’s ability to take risks, to have some margin of safety.
The disadvantages are made even more explicit in the hammer game. There, a white female carney struts around swinging a giant hammer back and forth, calling people over to play. I ask if I can try. She consults with her fellow white carney who lurks in the shadows of the tower I’m meant to light up. “Sure, you can play,” she says slyly, then hands me a tiny hammer the size of a pen. “And you have to stand behind the footprints,” she adds.
To make the picture complete, and because my friend – who’d lit up the tower and won $3 just moments before – was dying of laughter, I get on my knees and prostrate myself across the floor, stretching out to strike the target with my tiny hammer. No lights went off, just a tiny motion of the game’s crosslike wings. “Sorry, nice try,” or something like that, she said, full of jeer and irony.
The interplay of commercialism and racism was most poignant for me at the Make Your Own Noose station, where participants are given a small strand of rope and guided step by step through the process of tying a noose. In the corner sits an advertisement for The Forever Noose, a mere $200, made in gold. While several of the audience members – myself included – seemed uncomfortable with the experience of putting our own hands on such filthy history, the black hostess was magnanimous, welcoming us all to embrace our racism and acknowledge the practicality of lynching. As we tied our nooses in silence, she joyfully sang a ditty about all the ways slaves could die – a song white southerners used to teach their children to learn how to count.
The actors in this show make it whole. As I looked into the hostess’s face and she regarded the black stripe on my forehead and joked with me about lynching, both the humanity and brutality of her task as an actor was stunning. The same can be said of every individual on the floor of that carnival.
For one of the centerpiece acts, a black comedian performs a standup routine, with blacks at the butt of every joke. The satire is ably taken in stride until a white audience member joins in. This is the moment in interactive theater when you start trying to piece together the puzzle of who is and isn’t part of the show. It is a bitter realization – in the racism of today, it can be just as hard to tell who is complicit. Are you complicit for standing by idly? Uncomfortably? For fading into the background? While the white audience member rattled off increasingly offensive black jokes, two older black women in the audience started talking back, asking if he was real or a part of the show. How damning not to be able to tell. Finally, one of the women gave up and said, “I need the Care Lady,” and walked away.
The “Care Lady” is a mobile station that provides ‘respite’ when needed. For whites, she is called the Fragility Nurse; for blacks, The Anger Management Squad. I elected to visit the Care Lady myself – the one for blacks – and found myself having my most emotional experience of the night. As the egregious standup raged on behind me, the Care Lady placed a set of headphones on my head, handed me a personal walkman, and pressed play. As the tunes of Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ began to issue forth, the Care Lady – a young woman – locked eyes with mine and began to dance, without a hint of expression on her face. In an environment constructed almost entirely to trigger you, the beauty of her dance, her stoicism, and the message “Don’t worry” was almost too much to take. Before starting the song, she had whispered to me that the song went on forever. While I didn’t want to, at some point I said I was OK and she could stop. Shortly after, an emcee – the white carney girl repurposed – guided everyone in a thigh clapping lesson of the do-si-do. The bizarre disconnect between feeling joy in such a dark, destructive environment would not cease to feel like a miracle.
At the culmination of the interactive piece of the show, a mythical African woman on stilts glides in and the black-identified audience members are guided out….onto a slave ship. After the spectacle of the carnival, the quiet, cramped solitude of the slave ship with just the bodies of your fellow black audience members and the sound of the ocean waves outside bring a sudden sense of calm, oneness. Again, irony. As I swam in this feeling of embrace and acceptance and /finally/ being around my own people, my friend said he and the other white audience members were privy to a slave auction.
The dual-sided enactments of slavery smartly and fairly smoothly segued into the second half of the show, which draws focus on slavery of a different nature: the prison-industrial complex. What ensues is a more traditional staged drama about the inner workings of the Supremacyland we just experienced, from the point of view of the black actors – a meta critique on the prison pipeline and the difficulty of finding non-degrading work afterwards. At this point the overall show experience certainly slows down, but you get the sense this is where the meat of Scruggs’ message truly lies, as he refuses to shy away from graphic representations of brutality and violence, and carefully portrays the struggles black men and women face – both emotional and physical – for freedom against those things.
While the show is 3 hours long, you may still leave with a lot of unanswered questions. How do the actors feel about all this? What booths did you miss? How did the show resonate with other audience members and their lived racial experience? Of course, as in life, there is no time to do everything, so make the most of your time there, because you will be left wondering what other moments these actors could have shared with you. In parts joy and brutality, 3/Fifths forces you to live through the atrocities of this nation’s racism as though they are merely satire, or jokes with a bad punchline, rather than reality.
Unfortunately when you walk back out into the fresh air of lower Manhattan – steps away from where black slaves were traded less than 200 years ago – you realize the walls of Supremacyland aren’t so easily escaped, and nobody is playing pretend.
Main photo: Khiry Walker in 3/Fifths at 3LD Art & Technology Center. Photo by Skye Morse-Hodgson