Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Disposable Men" at Perishable Theatre

Disposable Men (at Perishable Theatre through Sunday), created by, written by, and starring James Scruggs, is a one-man show, but it is inhabited by multitudes. Dedicated to the dozens of black men shot by police in New York City since 1989 and given context by the hundreds of horror movie clips projected on screens behind Scruggs, the show sings with the voice of a ghostly chorus. Through Scruggs himself, soloists emerge: the "audience nigger," a live video feed on a television draped in a prophet's burlap and dreadlock wig, who comments acerbically on images of black characters being bloodily dispatched in movies projected on-stage; the "lynch nigger" at Supremacy, a hot new theme restaurant where patrons pay to enact racist fantasies, and for the ribs, which look excellent; Cleophus Washington, who has the "bad blood" but, thank goodness, a diligent and good-hearted doctor to take care of him and his afflicted wife; Eddie the Watch, the innovative Bar Mitzvah dancer now keeping time in prison; a recruiter for a prison fraternity called Con Kappa Con (or is that Kan Kappa Kan?); and, finally, terribly, Amadou Diallo, the young, unarmed immigrant shot 41 times by New York City police officers in the winter of 1999. Like Frankenstein, like the Wolf Man, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, like Dracula, no ordinary means sufficed to take him down; it took, as it always does in the old movies, a village.

The play is immersive and disturbing, in part because its tone is so varied; its shifts in time and space and attitude shake us awake. Sometimes, however, its sense of adventure threatens to steer it towards obscurity. That there is a connection between the film clips and Scruggs's characters is clear, but it borders on the academic: is the play about film, or are the films about the play? That is, is the play about representation, or do filmic representations of monsters create an apt metaphor for the play's characters? And what about horror movie monsters is "disposable?" There are moments of sublime correspondence between film and stage, but just as often their relationship is nebulous and elusive. (I admit that I was distracted by trying to identify the various clips, many of which were taken from my favorite movies.) What makes Disposable Men work so well is not its digital media, but the human medium of Scrugg's voice--both authorial and oratorical--which is ironic, irreverent, reflective, baffled, and angry. Above all it is persuasive, and we follow it everywhere: to Supremacy, to a street corner where a mother sells her son for a sandwich or three, to a battle royal staged for the entertainment of prison guards. The play is kaleidoscopic rather than panoptic: through a single instrument we see distinct and vivid arrangements of the same elements. Even as Scruggs himself splinters and fragments, the play loses neither intensity nor purpose. Maybe atomization is the wrong analogy for this show; maybe, for all of its messy inquiry and bloody deconstruction, the play is actually about restoration. Scruggs isn't breaking himself down into discrete parts; he's documenting the making of an indivisible man.

No comments: