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Trapped in a traveling minstrel show

Sleeping Weazel production shines harsh spotlight on racial politics

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Trapped in a traveling minstrel show
(l-r): Wesley T. Jones, Vienna Carroll, Michael Bryan star in “3/ Fifths’ Trapped In a Traveling Minstrel Show.” (Photo: David Marshall)

Through Saturday, Nov. 11, Sleeping Weazel presents “3/Fifths’ Trapped In a Traveling Minstrel Show” at the Calderwood Pavilion at Boston’s BCA. If you can see only one show in the remainder of 2017, this should be it. Writer James Scruggs wrenches the audience out of their comfort zone and into the hilarious, haunting and tragic center of the lives of two black men, framed through a minstrel show.

Right from the start the show shocks. Three actors enter the stage. Wesley T. Jones and Michael Bryan both are in blackface with the exaggerated makeup and garish costumes of minstrel performers. Their ringleader, Vienna Carroll, wears the same costume but without the makeup.

“I can’t say enough about the bravery these actors have,” Scruggs says. “When they first put on the blackface, I asked myself if I had gone too far.”

The first half of the show illustrates the experience of black men through over-the-top minstrel show activities, including a game show called “Who Stole it Best,” wherein the contestants listen to a song and have to identify from which black artist it was appropriated. The second half, after an unexpected twist, devolves into a courtroom scene. The audience is asked to judge contemporary court cases like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

This juxtaposition allows the company to illustrate both the long history of racial oppression and the current day application of it. The minstrel makeup may have changed, but it still lives. Actor Carroll says, “We’re still doing stereotypes. They may not be in blackface but they’re still stereotypes. And our grandchildren are still going to look at them through the lens of shame and guilt.”

“3/Fifths’ Trapped In a Traveling Minstrel Show” is uncomfortable and confrontational. And it should be. In one scene, Jones mouths along to an eloquent recording of James Baldwin arguing for civil rights, while Bryan mouths along to a recording of Trump spouting racial ignorance. The juxtaposition would seem heavy-handed if it didn’t ring so true.

The Sleeping Weazel show is a theatrical culmination of every Internet argument in the past year. The production uses video, comedy, theatrics and audience participation to drive home the absurdity and the horror of our current racial politics. Hours after the final bows have been taken, the cast’s opening chant resonates: “Our mere existence ignites your hate, while our culture you appropriate, reality is subjective, and perverted.”