On a fabric screen, a film reel—spliced from ’50s creature features, ’70s art house, and ’90s slasher pics—rolls inexorably on. In nearly every frame, an African American man meets violent death via knife, ax, gun, shark, or most spectacularly, self-decapitation. As another unfortunate prepares to meet his doom, writer-performer James Scruggs shouts at the screen: “Aw, man. Go! Leave the room! I would leave!” The man on-screen doesn’t listen; neither does the audience. They sit tight and listen raptly as Scruggs launches his brisk and searing Disposable Men, a 90-minute multimedia meditation on the expendability of black men in contemporary culture.
In a series of monologues, Scruggs portrays a Tuskegee syphilitic, a Rockefeller drug law casualty, and a “lynch nigger” at the theme restaurant Supremacy. “It’s run like a plantation,” he explains cheerily, “only fun!” Occasionally a section seems overlong, a critique will falter, or the interaction between film and live performance will mesh messily, but Scruggs has nevertheless crafted a model of articulate rage and prickly comedy. In the final segment, stagehands distribute gun-shaped laser pointers, and spectators map the 41 bullets fired at Amadou Diallo onto Scruggs’s motionless form. No performance piece in recent memory has made audiences feel at once so engaged and so culpable.