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Disposable Men

a Drama
by James Scruggs

VENUE : 7 Stages [WEBSITE]
ID# 2235

SHOWING : March 22, 2007 - March 25, 2007



Video Artist James Scruggs takes a multi-media look at the Historical and Cultural forces that have led to "the phenomenon of the African American male as an endangered species.

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Political Theatre
by Dedalus
Friday, March 30, 2007
Plays that advocate a particular political point-of-view can (and most often are) troubling affairs. The creators too often are so passionate about their stance that they forget little things like plot, character, and structure – too often the result is a shrill rant rather than a persuasive argument. One need look only as far back as 7 Stages’ 2006 productions of “George and Martha” and “Nickel and Dimed” to know what I mean. These were two cases in which I was sympathetic to the points-of-view on display, yet still found the results thoroughly painful to sit through. I may be a bit cynical, but if you can’t convince someone who agrees with you, how can you possibly persuade those who don’t?

Which brings us to “Disposable Men,” the last in 7 Stages “March Madness” series. James Scruggs’ multi-media piece again eschews plot and character in the service of a point-of-view, in this case the lamentable phenomenon of “the African American male as an endangered species.” What’s different in here is that he uses a coherent structure and a series of very theatrical flourishes to make his point. He presents the dilemma not as rant against White racism or African-American victimhood, but as the product of historical paradigms and cultural archetypes. It’s not a matter of “Look at what The Man is doing to us;” it’s a matter of “This is the reality, these are the roots, what can we do together to fix it?”

Of course, let’s not forget I’m looking at this through the prism of a comfortable white suburban middle-class theater geek, so I may be projecting.

Anyway, “Disposable Men” has already started as the audience enters. Mr. Scruggs appears on a video screen in the back of the house commenting on various film clips being projected around the stage. We see examples of the Horror Film trope of the "Villagers” mobbing up against “The Monster,” as well as the more modern horror cliché of “The Brother is Always the First to Die.” The point is made at the start that Black Men, especially poor and young black men, are perceived as the “other,” the one from whom we have to protect our women and children.

Once the play begins in earnest, a “live” Scruggs comes out and engages in a dialog with his video self as well as with the audience. In a deceptively structured evening, he covers historical realities of slavery and Jim Cross south, modern economic depression, fear of the other, and cognitive dissonance. This all leads up to an incredibly powerful conclusion centering on young, unarmed Black Men killed by police. In all this, Mr. Scruggs is charming and persuasive, never ranting or outraged – and yet, his anger is real, if not bouncing off the walls. Let me emphasize here that he does not ignore the realities of urban gang life and urban crime and glorification of criminals. I actually think he sees the police as victims of this societal mindset as well as their victims. At one point, he is giving a glimpse into the mind of a young victim who describes his killers as “Young and scared like me. Why are they scared? I’m just a guy standing in front of my apartment building.”

And it is this final sequence that drives the point home. Toy guns equipped with laser pointers are handed out to 44 members of the audience. Mr. Scruggs then takes on the role of a young man having a bad day. He was turned down for a raise and is a bit bitter about that. He’s standing in front of his apartment, having a smoke, when a car filled with young men comes slowly down his street. It’s actually an unmarked police cruiser, who see a “jittery black man” loitering. The result is another killing of an unarmed man – 44 shots fired. As Mr. Scruggs gives us the thoughts of the young man, a video monitor highlights where each shot hit or missed him. The audience “guns” are numbered, so everyone “fires” at the target shown. By the end of the monologue, Mr. Scruggs is a pincushion of red laser-pointing “hits.” And the ultimate jab comes when he asks if any of us even know the man’s name. He then leaves the stage as a “Credit Roll” sequence of young unarmed African-American men fills the screens (a disturbingly high number of them from Atlanta).

I have to confess, the combination of sound, video, red-pointer lights, and calm stream-of-consciousness commentary made an impact that left me literally shaking. Since the sequence takes the time to show us all 44 shots fired, we are caught up in a seemingly endless volley of violence and fear.

To digress for a moment into my own political rant. Last year, when “Crash” won the Academy Award for Best Picture, cynics were saying it was an easy piece “preaching to the choir.” “There’s no one who thinks racism is a good thing” was the constant refrain. And yet, reality contradicts this to no end. Georgia’s esteemed legislature, in the space of one week, abandoned an effort to apologize for slavery and embraced an effort to declare a “Confederate Heritage Month.” This juxtaposition made it abundantly clear that our elected representatives simply find nothing to apologize for. It’s not that there’s a “Why should I apologize for something that ended before I was born” sentiment, it strikes me more as a “Why should I apologize for something I’m not sorry about” sentiment. That’s your “Confederate Heritage.” The historical revisionists want to cast the Civil War into a fight for freedom. I am reminded of what Will Durant wrote in 1944: “Now and then, liberty, in the slogans of the strong, means freedom from restraint in the exploitation of the weak.” (“The Story of Civilization III – Caesar and Christ,” pg 17). These are obviously people who do believe that Racism is a good thing.

And who probably think that the high crime statistics among young black men justifies the killing of unarmed (and innocent) black men. When you fall into the logical trap of assigning to individuals the guilts associated with whole groups, you become part of the mob pursuing Frankenstein to the mill, or carrying Leo Frank to that tree. If there is no need to apologize for injustices that ended before you were born, there is no need to celebrate the heritage that gave rise to them. When those injustices started a chain of cultural mindsets that persist to this day, a gesture – even a pointless apology – can go a long way to break that chain.

And it is hard to escape it.

Political Theatre is something that is almost impossible to make work. If you’re too passionate, you come across as a ranter. If you’re too even-handed, you come across as lacking a strong point-of-view. If you persuade, you come across as a demagogue. But James Scruggs shows how it should be done: Keep your passion. Temper it with structure. Keep the Victimhood and Villainhood castings at a minimum. And make your audience see themselves in both roles.

To illustrate this last point -- One day a few years ago, I was taking a walk in downtown Atlanta. I was on a totally deserted street when a young (and impoverished-looking) African American man walked onto the street heading in my direction. That cultural mind-set grabbed me by the short hairs and raised my tension level too many notches. When I passed the man, he smiled at me and said “Anyone ever tell you you look like Bill Gates?” (They do, but I don’t see it).

-- Brad Rudy (



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