Disposable Men

5 Apr

I saw James Scrugg’s solo show, Disposable Men, at Perishable Theatre in Providence this weekend. It was a knock-out. The performance uses video and film in combination with live performance to present an impressionistic account of the way that black men are allied in the popular imagination with monsters. It’s funny and hard hitting and occasionally frightening. Scruggs has an amazing array of old movie footage–from the notorious ‘Birth of a Nation’ with its images of white-hooded Klansmen to Frankenstein and King Kong. Plus there are many clips of horror films where “BADF” (the brother always dies first). It’s very sobering to watch film monsters and African-American men basically shaped on celluloid into the same stories of outsider-dom, danger, and monstrous pity. Scruggs also has live projection of his own face, gazing down, with derogatory words for black men written on the forehead. The contrast between the living face, moving and breathing without being frozen as only an image, and the hateful words is very strange and painful to watch.

Interspersed with the extraordinary footage and projected images are vignettes which Scruggs narrates in the first person directly to an intimate-scale audience. One is a story of prison life, the coming-of-age ritual for young black men of incarceration. Another is the story of an unarmed young man in NY who in 1999 was shot dead by NYPD officers. This is one of the performance’s most riveting sequences. Audience members are given wooden guns with red laser-lights that can be activated by pulling the trigger. An outline of a man’s body is projected to the side of the narrator, and as he tells the story, the number of bullets fired grows. EAch audience member’s gun bears a number (mine was 29) and we are asked to shoot at the target as the number is called. I couldn’t do it, even in this stylized form it was horrible to imagine shooting someone.

Another sequence is simple story-telling; Scruggs narrates in the voice of an illiterate black man, the tale of a doctor treating him for “bad blood”. It turns out that he was used by the US government as a test subjject for untreated syphilis and basically left to die from its effects, without his consent or being told.
Scruggs has a sharp analysis of the way the black man is sexualized and racialized in the popular imagination and his multi-media materials make the point very clearly. The role of black men, white women and white men in this sorry economy of cruelty and spectacle is elegantly mapped. What seemed strangely absent in this tale was the position of black women in the sexualized and racialized mapping of the black man’s body. I wondered if, in outlining the many cruelties and barbarisms unleashed on black men, they became a literal blind spot–the place where the shadow falls? Thinking about the inmates of the jails released and the beatings and danger the men were in made me wonder what they were like when they came home. If white oppresses black in the schema Scruggs outlines, and men oppress women, then by this logic black women are somewhere on the receiving end of it all.

I don’t expect this show, specifically about black men’s positioning in the white imaginary as monsters (and the material consequences of that) to deal with everything. I just note the eerie absence of the black woman from this account. White women are there both on screen and in the stories told as victims and forbidden fruit, as excuse for a lynching party. But black women? Nowhere to be seen, not on screen nor in the stories told.

Having said that– it was a wonderful show. It did what one hopes documentary based work can do (and so rarely does)—travel beyond the literal into the dreamscapes that shape real events, showing the collusion of fact, fantasy, imagination in literally branding and mapping (black men’s) flesh into their own pre-formed, fear-driven images. In Australia, a phrase from aboriginal culture that’s percolated into the mainstream is “the dreaming” and it’s often put in terms of the question. “What’s the dreaming of this place?” In traditional tribal terms, this refers to the network of social and spiritual relationships that govern a place, encapsulated in stories and songs. In the wider colloquial sense, it’s come to mean what’s the story behind these events–what are the fears, dreams, imagination and logic behind what seem to be facts. In this latter sense, Scruggs’s show seems to be asking “what’s the (white) dreaming of the black man as monster”?


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