The “whites only” and “colored only” entrances to the immersive portion of 3/Fifths at 3LD Art & Technology Center in lower Manhattan are visible not only to wary ticket-holders, but to everyday pedestrians who happen to pass by the glass façade. Indeed, 3/Fifths holds a funhouse mirror to systemic racism in America by uniting the reality of everyday injustice with immersive theatrical experience.
3/Fifths, while perhaps suffering from a lack of streamlining, is a rare theatrical contribution to the ranks of contemporary artworks probing the seedy underbelly of our flagging nation. It adds a desperately needed black perspective to a white-dominated canon of dystopian literature, peopled most famously by Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury. 3/Fifths may also appeal to fans of Jordan Peele’s recent cult-cinema jewel Get Out, a marriage of the horror genre with social commentary. Like Get Out, 3/Fifths makes critical and compelling art from American racial injustice and leaves one deeply disturbed by the grotesqueries embedded in our reality.
Before entering the experience, one must declare a racial identity to the blind ticket taker (Catherine Braxton) at the entrance. Then the Docent (Lauren White), with her bright white smile and Confederate flag ball gown, orients visitors to the truly grotesque theme park awaiting them. Once inside SupremacyLand, audiences can roam freely through the Atrocity Carnival, a spacious midway offering a variety of macabre entertainments. Guests meander between the Ask a Black Man booth, where anything goes when it comes to asking black people about being black; to the Selfies with Homies station, where participants are encouraged to toss up a gang sign in a picture with two “Homies” in baggy pants; to an arts-and-crafts area where participants can Make Your Own Noose. David Ogle’s highly cohesive scenic design evokes a turn-of-the-20th-century aesthetic of carnivalesque tent entertainments, such as blackface minstrelsy, coon dances, and freak shows. Another impressive aspect of SupremacyLand is the ensemble’s commitment to the satirical framing of this experience; their collectively exaggerated enthusiasm alludes to the strain of racial performance.
Indeed, SupremacyLand’s juxtaposition of “family-friendly” circus elements with the unapologetic reproduction of African-American stereotypes achieves a Brechtian effect of “making the familiar strange.” From a distance, the temporary tattoo booth appears innocuous enough; a closer inspection of its offerings, however, reveals a menu of white power symbols, such as swastikas and Pepe the Frog. “Fragility nurses” are on call for any white people who feel overwhelmed by the theme park environment; on the other hand, “anger management specialists” provide an outlet for people of color. These bits of dark humor illuminate the absurdities of double standards.
The discomfort produced in SupremacyLand stimulates one’s inner dialogue about race and racism. White-identified participants are treated to Lionel Macauley’s performance of a slave boy-cum-stripper. This gag is an astute embodiment of the commodification of black bodies; even the most stoic participants must heed Macauley’s sequined charm as he works the audience like Magic Mike. The unfortunate reality is that racism works in far subtler ways, especially in places like New York City, where plenty of white liberals claim “color-blindness.” 3/Fifths begins to unpack this pervasion of microaggression with a debut character named “Lefty Liberal” (played by Monica Howe). Lefty’s cameo is too brief, however—representing a missed opportunity for 3/Fifths to parse out the more insidious manifestations of racism, which, unfortunately, may be the behaviors that its white liberal audiences would benefit from understanding more fully.
For better and for worse, the second half of 3/Fifths is equally epic in scale. The only comfort offered by this less interactive and more narrative portion of the show is that spectators may take a seat (which will come as a great relief to anyone lugging a heavy purse or backpack—travel light to this show). Led into a hidden “cabaret” space, spectators are reconfigured to sit in a more traditional proscenium spatial arrangement. This second half of 3/Fifths affords a backstage glimpse into the nefarious profiteers who manage SupremacyLand. It begins with a filmic interlude that reveals a “prison to theme park” pipeline. The audience follows the story of Lyle Watson (David Roberts), saddled with debt and unable to attain a decent job, as he accepts a position at SupremacyLand under the impression that it is his best and only option for a life beyond incarceration. Lyle is not wrong; 3/Fifth’s second half is an allegory that illuminates the magnificently insurmountable obstacles stacked against black men and women caught in cycles of incarceration in the United States.
Of course, the cyclical nature of imprisonment greatly benefits the theme park’s proprietor, and there is no more detestable villain than the General (Ken Straus), whose fervent and egotistical commitment to white supremacy will be triggering to most anyone who avoids the news these days. Vienna Carroll’s performance as the General’s “Mammy” is uber-dynamic as she code-switches between whichever role her white master demands: mother, sex slave, prison recruiter, songbird.
If it is not obvious yet, 3/Fifths is a gigantic undertaking in scale, space, theme, duration, technology, and style. Currently, some performance elements are messy, with some flubbed lines and awkward transitions. However, one can imagine future iterations of the show that are more elegantly executed.
The rawness of 3/Fifths is very much in line with the usual 3LD fare, which is often intermedial, experimental, and in the early stages of realization. The fact that each half of 3/Fifths had its own director (Tamilla Woodard for the immersive Carnival and Kareem Fahmy for the backstage cabaret drama) creates a bit of a stylistic fissure, though. Woodard and Fahmy (and perhaps the playwright James Scruggs) seem reluctant to cut any part of their elephantine creation, resulting in two halves that are far too long and scattered. As a matter of house management, it was unclear that the audience was even expected to stay for a fully realized second half, making its melodramatic plot structure difficult to bear after such a full immersive experience.
Dystopian art is having a heyday in this political climate, and although 3/Fifths suffers from overreaching ambitions in scale, at its heart is a topic that is as American as apple pie—white privilege and the violence that it continues to inflict on men and women of color.
3/Fifths runs at 3LD Art & Technology Center (80 Greenwich St., at Rector, in lower Manhattan), with performances Tuesday through Saturday at 7 and 7:15 p.m. and Sundays at 4 and 4:15 p.m. (except May 28, at 6:30 and 6:45 p.m.). Tickets are $25 and are available by calling Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or visiting www.3ldnyc.org. For more information, visit www.3fifths.org.