Writer, performer, and multimedia artist James Scruggs received acclaim for his immersive theatrical experience “3/Fifths” in New York last spring. But when Sleeping Weazel artistic director Charlotte Meehan asked him to bring the show to Boston, he paused.
“‘3/Fifths’ was a huge undertaking, with 30 collaborators, 23 actors, dozens of projections in five different spaces,” says Scruggs. “We learned a lot from that production, and I decided to write an entirely new piece, using just three actors and incorporating some of the moments that resonated most with the audience.”
The new show, which is having its world premiere in the Nicholas Martin Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 11, is called “3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show.”
“We are using the format of the historic minstrel show, including songs and text, as well as just a little video,” says director Mark Rayment, “but the material is very 2017.”
“3/Fifths’ Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show” opens with an upbeat song and then unfolds through nine more scenes, including a game show and a trial, in which the audience is asked to decide who is innocent and who is guilty.
“Initially, I thought that as a Caucasian Englishman, I was not the right person to direct a production dealing with a topic like race,” says Rayment, “but James has written a piece that relies on pure storytelling. I put aside my politics, and ask the actors to do the same, to create characters who have a point of view that may not be their own, and then focus on presenting logical, succinct arguments from both sides.”
Scruggs says he is not interested in creating “therapy theater.”
“In 2005, I wrote a piece called ‘Disposable Men’ as a response to the police killings of unarmed black men,” he says. “I was really angry, and it felt good to get it out there, but it became a rant, and preaching to people is not always helpful.”
“3/Fifths” — the title refers to the clause in the Constitution that counted slaves as 3/5 of a person for the purposes of taxation and representation — was set in a “SupremacyLand” theme park where white privilege was heralded, to illustrate that point of view. But Scruggs and Rayment say “The Traveling Minstrel Show” is more balanced, even as it explores issues of race, equality, and justice.
“We have come to a point where videos of the killings of unarmed black men by police are viewed like paintings. Their meaning is interpreted differently depending on your perspective,” says Scruggs. “These documentary videos have to be ‘whitesplained’ to black people.”
“Theater is conflict,” says Rayment. “The best theater entertains, and engages the audience in the conversation.”
Culture clash on the Vineyard
Molly Smith Metzler says she writes “close to home.”
The playwright and a producer on TV’s “Shameless” says that means the subjects of her plays “are not necessarily true, but close.”
Metzler returns to Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, where she made her playwriting debut 15 years ago, for the premiere of a revised script for her play, “Elemeno Pea,” through Nov. 19 (www.bu.edu/bpt, $30).
Originally written in 2011, the play, which is set during a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, is a funny and sometimes poignant look at the culture clash that happens when two sisters make different choices about their life priorities. One is a social worker; the other is working on the Vineyard as a personal assistant to a billionaire’s trophy wife.
Metzler, calling from New York where she was visiting her own sister, recalled working one summer on Martha’s Vineyard and witnessing incredible class discrepancies.
“I was with a lot of people who were just enjoying a summer on the Vineyard, while I had to work to pay the bills,” she says. “That was eye-opening, but after my daughter was born [nearly five years ago], I felt I had a new insight on one of the characters, and I wanted to go back and get it right.”
That opportunity, she says, was created by her success writing for TV.
“When you are writing for TV, you’re a hired hand, working on someone else’s vision,” says Metzler, who has written for “Casual” and “Orange Is the New Black,” and this year was named a producer for Showtime’s “Shameless.”
“I love the one-hour, dramedy space,” she says. “It’s very collaborative, but very fast-paced, kind of fight or flight, which helps you get out of your own way.”
Even though TV and film are keeping her very busy, she feels free to write what she wants in her plays.
“Working on plays becomes like spending precious time with your secret lover,” she says.
Her latest play, “Cry It Out,” emerged out of her own experience traveling between New York and Los Angeles when her daughter was a baby. The play received praise when it debuted at the Humana Festival last spring, and in a production at Northlight Theater in the summer.
“It’s about new mothers and the struggle to balance all the aspects of being a woman, a mother, a professional, a partner,” she says.
Metzler, who also just completed a screenplay adaptation of “The Thing About Jellyfish,” about a 12-year-old girl whose grief has left her speechless, says she’s encouraged by the current interest in stories with strong female characters.
“I’m so grateful for the people I’ve been able to work with in TV and film,” she says. “It’s been really good for my playwriting.”
3 FIFTHS’ TRAPPED IN A TRAVELING MINSTREL SHOW
Presented by Sleeping Weazel. At Nicholas Martin Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Nov. 3-11. Tickets $15-$25, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comTerry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.