Khiry Walker in 3/Fifths at 3-Legged Dog Art & Technology Center (all photos by Skye Morse-Hodgson)

I don’t think I’ve ever attended a performance in which the word “nigger” was said so often or so lustily. The “interactive carnival and cabaret” — as writer and producer James Scruggs describes it — that is 3/Fifths is an evening-length performance that makes the corrosive effects of racism relentlessly felt through a variety of storytelling vehicles, the most painful being humor.

The performance began with a relatively innocent query. A woman sitting in a chair, wearing dark glasses and holding a walking stick, essentially posing as blind (later I would see her easily negotiate her way around a semicircular stage, so I know it was a ruse), asked everyone in front of me as they entered the theater whether they were black or white. We had to choose one or the other — I saw someone try to identify as “other,” and she wasn’t allowed. After we answered, everyone was marked with either a single black line or two parallel white lines on our foreheads, and we were each given a number of “supremacy” dollars. Some people clearly identified as they chose, not as they are; I saw some black lines on very light-toned skin. Something about this felt like the insertion of a knife between the ribs: I identified myself and was thus encouraged to see the degradation that was to follow (much of which was aimed at black people, though there were some insults only self-identified whites were allowed to experience, such as the “fragility nurses” who walked around offering who knows what) as somewhat of an extension of my own decision. However, the rest of the three-hour performance didn’t leave much room for personal choice.

Matthew Brown managing the “Scene of the Crime”

The immersion in the indignity that ratcheted up throughout most of the performance began in a long hallway filled with videos projections, including embarrassingly racist cartoons and white men demonstrating how to use a wooden baton in self-defense. Then the host, a woman in a fairly obvious long blonde wig and a red gown with a Confederate flag stitched onto the back, welcomed us to “Supremacy Land” where, among other attractions, “we can see the nigger in his natural habitat: jail.” The “nigger”s flow fast and hard after that. I was so uncomfortable I started planning to leave. I had only been there for 20 minutes.

Lauren White playing the host

After the introduction, we were led into a fairground space, the “Atrocity Carnival,” where we could play various games, like “Lynching Wheel of Fortune,” “Ask a Black Man,” and “Rough Ride,” which played off the Freddie Gray story, allowing guests to shake up a toy police transport van while a corresponding electronic onscreen avatar tumbled all over and a meter recorded how much damage was being done to the character. I played “Scene of the Crime,” in which I was told by a grinning white actor that a man of color had been spotted in the neighborhood and that I could do my civic duty by reporting him as either a gang member, a drug dealer, or a sexual predator. Then, with eyes closed, I was spun around and asked to throw beanbag weights shaped like handguns onto a chalked outline of a body on the ground. My accuracy was rewarded with more “supremacy” dollars. I also played “Lynching Wheel of Fortune,” in which the operator spun a wheel partitioned into categories corresponding to decades in the 20th century or sums of money. When a decade was landed on, participants were quizzed about what would have gotten a black man lynched at that time (the right answer, no matter how ridiculous the reasons sounded, was always “D: All of the above”).

David Roberts and William Delaney as prison workers in “Supremacy Land”

Later on, the cabaret portion took place in another section of the theater, to which we were led by a black woman in bright stage makeup walking on stilts beneath a wash of colorful fabric. She sang and chanted songs that seemed African and tribal. This interlude started out well, but quickly went south. There was a “welcome” home, pitting the white actors, who were singing a patriotic song, against the black actors, who sang their own songs and engaged in a kind of rhythmic, flowing dance that was likely West African–inspired. It all became cacophony.

Then there was a section that seemed to go on forever, in which two black men wearing blackface (blacker face?) the color of shoe polish acted out stereotypes of black people in a movie theater: loudly declaiming their business while varied clips played on the back of the proscenium. They received phone calls, conducted loud arguments, yelled their critiques of the movies — it came close to being unbearable. Finally the section closed with a kind of dystopian drama in which all the black actors played prisoners/employees in a scheme combining the spectacles of West World, Black Mirror, and Oz. This section did end on an upbeat note: Following a crisis, the characters asserted their recognition of their humanity and decided to fight back.

L-R: Ken Straus and William Delaney as the General and a prison worker in “Supremacy Land”

However, for me, the crux of the show occurred earlier, during the carnival section. At one point, a black man in a motley outfit of striped trousers, beige tailcoat, and black top hat, who, like the other actors, had a ruthless grin plastered on his face, walked into the center ring, climbed onto a dais, and began to tell terrible racist jokes — most of which featured the word “nigger” as the punchline. What do you call a black man with an education? Nigger. What’s a black man once he leaves the room? Nigger. Then a seemingly nervous white man posing as an audience member requested and was given the barker’s microphone, and he proceeded to start telling his own racist jokes. How do you keep niggers from going out? Add more gasoline. What do you do if you find a nigger sunk in cement up to his neck? Get more cement. Eventually the barker took back the microphone, and the black man finally switched tracks to tell a joke in which a white man is the butt of it. On hearing yet another “nigger” joke in reply, the barker began to get angry and moved toward the white man, who had by then fully embraced his racism and was exulting in being able to display it publicly. Another actor stepped in to defuse things.

Natalie Chapman as the attendant of the “Lynching Wheel of Fortune”

This scene was the most crucial for me because it got directly at what 3/Fifths (a reference to the Three-Fifths Compromise that effectively enshrined the dehumanization of black people in the Constitution) is doing. Those jokes felt like a bloodletting, like a bevy of long knives inserted into every audience member. It’s as if the body politic today is so sick from collective disease that remains hidden under the patina of polite conversation, unethical legal compromises, historical amnesia, and obscurantist rhetoric, that the word “nigger” is the only thing strong and sharp enough to pierce the swollen skin and let the pus flow out. The patient (the nation) is so ill that the show’s creators believe they must resort to the most barbaric form of intervention: bleeding the patient. In a way, it worked: I felt cut every time the word “nigger” was deployed with strategic glee.

But I wonder — to bring the metaphor to its conclusion — whether the patient is too far gone to save.

Perhaps because I have been watching American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the moment when the barker approached the white man to do him harm felt like the lead-up to a riot. It seems like uprisings and riots are another way to bleed the patient. To be violent, verbally or physically, is to take a slash-and-burn approach to waking up our collective consciousness, which makes for a difficult performance to participate in. The ambitions of 3/Fifths are worthwhile, but leaving the theater, I didn’t feel cured. Would anyone be? After we’ve been cut to pieces by all that vileness served with a smile, what are the chances of recovery?

3/Fifths continues at 3-Legged Dog Art and Technology Center (80 Greenwich Street, Financial District) through May 28.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...