nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
June 10, 2005
New York video artist James Scruggs has long been engrossed by the phenomenon of African American men being an endangered species. He found himself surrounded by images indicating that black men in this country are largely considered threatening and inhuman and, as such, could be killed with little conscience or remorse. These images are seen daily in movies and TV shows. Many also come from an American history that includes slavery, lynchings, black men being used for scientific experiments, and a parade of unarmed men being gunned down by the police. Somehow the life of a black man in this country does not seem to be highly regarded.
The idea took hold for Scruggs in 2000 when he created an eight-channel video instillation for an exhibit in DUMBO. That project has now grown into a 90-minute performance piece consisting of monologues, audience participation, and as many as nine visual images at any one time projected on hanging screens and video monitors placed around the stage. With this bombardment of words and images, Scruggs has given us a piece that is powerful and disturbing and begs to be seen.
The artist created Disposable Men not with the intention of pointing fingers or causing racial anger or guilt. But certainly it is impossible to address the severe mistreatment of a group of people without pointing out where the mistreatment has come from, and the show justifiably places blame where it is due, often upon the government, the police, and Ku Klux Klan. Much of the information is (hopefully) not new to most audiences. We have all been witness to the killing of unarmed black men by the police under suspicious circumstances, and can all name at least one of the victims. We have studied and seen graphic images of slavery, lynchings and the Jim Crow South. We have learned—possibly seen the movie—about the Tuskegee experiments that left black men with syphilis untreated for as long as forty years in order to study the progression of the disease. But presented together here, the cumulative effect of the many parts of this work has the important feeling of a thesis: a pulling together of evidence in order to prove a pattern of behavior, and analyze the many factors that have led to its perpetuation. The thesis is quite effective. The point here is unavoidable.
The projected material comes from many places. Multiple images are used that simply feature the killing of black men in movies, often as disposable second-tier characters in works featuring white heroes. Many more come from films we’ve all seen that graphically depict slavery. Many are actual journalistic photos of lynchings, burnings, hosings and beatings by police during civil rights demonstrations. These images are juxtaposed with clips of fictional movie monsters like Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and King Kong being chained, hunted, lynched, beaten and burned by angry crowds who have projected a gang-like mentality of fear on the often innocent “monsters.” The screens also feature many original images of Scruggs and other actors who interact with the other screen images, with the actor as he performs, and with the audience directly.
Several sections involve audience participation. In the most striking of these, numbered guns with red laser lights are passed out to the crowd. As Scruggs reenacts Amadou Diallo’s last moments, the screen instructs the audience members where to aim each laser in turn until Scruggs’s body and the screen behind him are splattered with 41 red dots representing the 41 bullets shot at Diallo and the 19 that hit and killed him as he reached for his wallet.
The monologues cover a range from the historical to the absurd, including the personal story of one of the victims of the Tuskegee experiment, a waiter at a theme restaurant that features customized lynchings, and a young man’s journey from modern day minstrel to chronically jailed criminal. Scruggs is a committed performer, not afraid to get up close and confront the audience eye to eye. His message is as timely now as ever, and by immersing his audience in strong characters and images, Scruggs has made the truth here unavoidable.