Review: Step Right Up! ‘3/Fifths’ Takes You on an Ugly Ride

Immersive theater routinely makes audience members uncomfortable, but Mr. Scruggs is on a level all his own with “3/Fifths.” Presented by 3-Legged Dog, it begins as a stroll-about “atrocity carnival” (directed by Tamilla Woodard), then flows into another space for a sit-down cabaret (directed by Kareem Fahmy).

The outrage that pulses through this show has the same historical source as Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell’s “Underground Railroad Game,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” and works by Suzan-Lori Parks, including “Venus” (there is a Hottentot here, too), though “3/Fifths” is less accomplished as drama. It’s like a distant descendant of George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” but on the art-school side of the family, akin to Pedro Reyes’s “Doomocracy” installation last fall.

Every moment of this carnival (the set is by David Ogle) feels like a test with one question: What kind of ugliness are you willing to be a part of? Most of the would-be amusements are interactive, involving performers, but even a video game called Rough Ride is queasy-making: Shake a toy police van violently enough and see the animated black man on the screen tossed around. (Video design is by Cam Vokey and Jon Bremner.)

Photo

Natalie Lauren Chapman in a carnival scene.

Credit
Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

At the glaringly parodic Selfies With Homies booth, were the smiling white couple posing for a photograph regular audience members or friends of the show pitching in? I have no idea. Ditto the white guy at the tattoo booth, where all of the design choices are white supremacist, opening his shirt so that a swastika could be projected onto his chest.

Then there is the Crime Scene booth, which works like a beanbag toss. An unnervingly cheerful white thug, who seems like he’d have been friends with Rolfe the Nazi in “The Sound of Music,” urges people to choose a prestocked evidence bag. Then he spins them around with their eyes closed.

The challenge, he explained, is to use your intuition — which, yes, is funny in a grim way — to scatter the evidence around a black man (William Delaney) lying inside a chalk outline. Do it properly and the thug (Matthew Brown) will congratulate you: “We have a natural in the house tonight. Are you in law enforcement?”

Occasionally, performances occur in the center of the room, where Jim Crow (Khiry Walker) gets a laugh track so his disturbing jokes don’t seem as if they’re bombing. When a procession leads the black audience members into the cabaret space, the whites stay behind for a creepy show of their own with the General (Ken Straus), whose face is on the currency of SupremacyLand. (On the reverse in one…

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