Looking Back, MELT!ing Forward: A Conversation with artist James Scruggs

In anticipation of James Scruggs' Out of Line performance on May 17, we invited Ted Kerr, a Brooklyn-based writer, organizer and teacher at the New School, to sit down and chat with James about his art, life, and inspiration for MELT!.

Theodore (Ted) Kerr: Before we jump into talking about MELT!, which takes place in the future, let's visit the past. What is your earliest memory?
James Scruggs: There are two. There's one that was told to me so many times that I feel like it's my memory, but it's not. I am holding a rabbit, I don't know whether it was mine or not, but I dumped it in a puddle and it tried to bite me. But is that a memory?

I think my first real memory is being in a car and arriving at my grandfather's house. My mother had just left my father. It was 1960. I must have been four years old and my father suffered from the disease of alcoholism. My mother was a very wise woman, and she knew that the illness would not go away on its own and it would only get worse, so she decided to leave, which was amazing back in 1960. She always told me that my father was not a bad person; he was a sick person. She never badmouthed him or anything. She used to say, "I don't want it to be said that he was a bad person, because it would seem like I had bad taste in men…" I guess I should warn you, with me, none of my stories are short.

Ted: That is an intense first memory. Where was this?
James: It was in Plainfield, NJ, where I'm actually moving back to at the end of next month.

Ted: What takes you back?
James: I live in Jersey City with my husband. We live in a house I bought from my other life where I worked at Windows on the World, in the World Trade Center. It was a good job where I made a lot of money, so I bought a house. I still have it. We're selling it, downsizing and moving to Plainfield.

Ted: Let's switch gears. Do you call yourself an artist?
James: I've embraced the term artist. It took me a while to get there, and I thought it was really arrogant for a while, but I'm claiming it now. I'm an artist.

Ted: And judging from your email handle , digitalgriot, I think you also embrace the idea of being a storyteller.
James: Absolutely.

Ted: Your email handle also makes me think about how the past, present, and future seems to be embedded in everything you do. Griot is this word with a long history, and digital of course is relatively recent. Together, you have created this playful, yet really deep idea of a story teller rooted in tradition and the present. Do you think of yourself as a historian—someone who drags history forward?
James: I don't. I see myself as curious, and I got that from my mother. She was that way until the day she passed, and that kept her young. She was learning right up until she couldn't remember anything. I hope that I remain that way too. Curiosity fuels my projects, usually starting with a question, like, "What would happen if I walked out of my vehicle completely nude? Would a policeman still fear for his life or would he fear me even more?" Thinking about this took me down a rabbit hole of research and creation, which lead to a piece I wrote called Disposable Men, about an African American man feeling like a Hollywood monster. The work was looking at the ways we have been killed: 41 bullets, dragged around the town, burned, these very heightened ways. That lead to, 3/Fifths, in which we created "SupremacyLand," and eventually it lead me to MELT!, the reason for our conversation today!

Photo by Carlos David.

Ted: How does MELT! fit?
James: I'm consumed with pendulums as a metaphor. We had Obama, that's one swing, and now—I don't know if a pendulum could travel any further—we have Trump. And I'm like, what would be the next swing? If think Trump is right, right, right, so, what would left, left, left look like?

Ted: A return to something even further than before?
James: And what does that look lived out? As with all my work, with MELT!, I'm interested in implicating audiences, having them be involved in my process, I get enmeshed. People who know me, who've never seen my work, may come up to me after a show and be like, "Shit. What is going on in your head?" But with MELT!, something else is going on. It's going to be fun. It's literally going to be a rally.

Ted: What does that mean?
James: There's going to be music, participatory chants, we'll be making new slang for the future. As soon as you arrive, there'll be someone at the door who will ask you a couple of light and airy questions. This will help us organize people into cohorts based on ideas of race in the future: Asian, Black, Latinx, White, and Mosaics. In this new future, Mosaics are the majority and White people are yet another minority just like other minorities.

Ted: Post-racial to a new level?
James: Sure! And so much more. In this new future, pronouns have all but been outlawed, thought to be vulgar. Everyone is Human, so Hume is the new pronoun for everyone. And, maybe at first people will be like, "That's kind of cool," until the piece turns. In this world, the new president is preaching America as this concept country where everyone is welcome: "Please come. You're all welcome. America's a great melting pot, BUT you must melt." Hume is this idea that you cannot come here and set up a separate enclave of people like yourself. You must come here and assimilate. And it goes further, stating that because America is a great melting pot, we must further melt, and it becomes illegal to marry anyone of the same race because that is perpetuating un-American activity. America is a great melting pot, so melt, marry someone of a different race.

Ted: This is intense.
James: It keeps going. The president goes further and creates a gender acceptance day, where everyone is invited to step out of their gender box and live a day in the life of another gender. Then that turns into a law. If you break the law, you're considered un-American and subject to be penalized.

Ted: And is the audience participating?
James: Absolutely. People are going to witness and participate in scenarios. This future president is basically trying to push this idea of everyone meeting in this idea of a middle, and soon enough, there will be pushback. "Why can't I be called a black man? I work really hard to be a good man." And the response will be: "That is un-American. You are Hume. You are Human. Call yourself Hume."

Ted: You said that a lot of your stuff comes out of questions you're thinking about. What are some of the questions that lead to MELT!?
James: A few years ago I was in a room with people I have known for 10 years, and we were asked to go around and say our names and pronouns, and in my mind, I'm like, "I know everybody in this room. This is ridiculous, like political correctness on steroids." But then I thought about it two ways. One, I said, "These people do not know if I am considering what it means to be called she. Two, I realized that we all get to call ourselves whatever we want, which lead me to wonder, what would it mean if there were no pronouns."

Ted: So, instead of debating, you are experimenting with limits.
James: Yeah, we are going way too far, but I think what's really interesting and surprising. The best satire is grounded in fact. The magic starts when fact and fantasy blur. It gets people to think. I want people to ask, "Where am I on this and how do I feel about this? Is this cool, or is this fucked up?"

Photo by Carlos David.

Ted: I am intrigued by your relationship with the audience. What are the feelings you hope an audience member has when revelations are had that might be uncomfortable?
James: At the door of 3/Fifths, we had a woman who was "performing blindness." She had dark sunglasses and she was holding a cane that blind people use, and she was tapping it insistently so you were like, "Okay, she's blind. I get it. I get it," and she would look toward you but not at you, and she asked, "Black or white? What's your race?" And I thought that that would be a really simple question. I mentioned it to two white people before the show and both of them freaked out. They were like, "I have never been asked what race I am. I've never had to claim my race in public." There's never a time that I don't know that I'm black. A lot of white people don't see themselves as having a race. So at the door, if they said anything other than black or white, they were black, because in "Supremacy Land," if you're not white, you're black. And in the logic of the piece, if you're white, you got more money and the opportunity to experience more of the games in the atrocity carnival. If you're black, you got less money and less opportunity. I was interested in creating a place where it wasn't about people telling others about their experiences, it was getting a bit of insight into the feeling by experiencing it, intentionally witnessing it, with a literal spotlight on the differences.

Ted: And with MELT!, there will be a rally!
James: Ha. Yeah. And I fully expect that the audience is going to be 80% white. It's the High Line, it's experimental theater. This is just the reality, but it doesn't matter. We will separate people into the five groups and in that there will be fun swag, and a possible bonding experience within cohorts. My hope is that people will experience the erasing of race and gender with questions and push back. I fully expect people to ask the future president if Hume is promoting genocide. And I want people to consider what that feels like. I doubt if too many white people have experienced a situation where they are saying, "You are pushing me into genocide," but if in this new imagined future white people are not allowed to marry any other white people, they will never have white children, so the race will disappear, and what does that mean and how does that feel. I guess that is my long-winded answer to what I hope for the audience. I'm interested in people experiencing these big questions, that for many of us are top of mind everyday, couched in—let me say it again—FUN!

Ted: Haha. Ok, so, what is the role of fun in your work, especially in this political moment where there's so much intense stuff going on?
James: It's like, "Let your hair down and actually walk in the shoes of somebody else." It's really easy for a white person to say — and I'm not saying that white people say this, but–"I understand how you feel." But I doubt very seriously that many white people have experienced what I've experienced as a tall dark black man. I got followed around a furniture store two weeks ago, and I'm like, "Do you expect me to put a couch in my pocket?" Another time, somebody broke into my house, and this policeman literally came around the corner out of nowhere with his gun drawn, pointed it at me because I was the darkest one. My husband is white, and the guy who broke in, who was still there, was light-skinned. It was bizarre. Me and the light-skinned guy had to get on the floor, on the ground! And I can imagine, it's one thing to hear this story. It's yet another to have a loaded gun in my face. I said to my husband afterwards about the policeman, "Of course he would." It wasn't a surprise, I'm just lucky I didn't get shot. At one point I realized I didn't have my ID with me. I was going to go in the house and get it, but if I turned my back, the officer might have feared for his life and...The role of fun is being able to walk in someone else's shoes, and not actually be in them. That's the short answer.

Ted: Within the fun, then, there is an urgency for us to do the work.
James: I think people spend a lot of time wondering about what is normal, normative, unsure what it means to be white or cis, and yet people still say and do stupid things. I have friends who are not dark, like light brown skin with straight hair, and they tell me about how white people come up to them and say, "Hi. What are you? You look so exotic." How is this okay? Or, the way people say stuff like, "Oh, that person is a he/she." We live in this world where we are grading each other's existence. But in MELT!, in this future we are creating, it's flipped. Mosaics are the majority, and if you are not willing to be gender fluid, then you are literally un-American. So the question for me is, how does that feel?

Ted: It is a full experience.
James: I think people should come and just disregard everything I said that seems heavy or seems daunting, or if it seems like, "Oh God, I have to do ..." You don't have to do anything. Come as you are, and come and play with us. It will be fun.

Ted: We are talking a lot about the reception of the piece, but my sense is that you are asking us as the audience to be as vulnerable as you all are being in creating the piece.
James: Yeah. With 3/Fifths, we had five weeks of rehearsal and we got a chance to figure out, "What is the invitation? What is the turn? What is each thing?" With this, we don't have a lot of time to figure things out. We're devising the work, short-form, and part of that will be learning in real time from our mistakes. We don't know how it's going to land with audiences, so we're erring on the side of caution, and fun! I mean, it'll be fun until it's not, and even when it's not fun, it's still going to be theater.


Now in its third year, Out of Line presents a new set of arresting, intriguing, and playful performances by some of New York City's most exciting contemporary artists.

Accessibility
We encourage all persons with disabilities to attend. To request additional information regarding accessibility or accommodations at a program, please contact programs@thehighline.org or 646.774.2482. Program venues are accessible via wheelchair accessibility points, and ASL interpretation can be arranged two weeks in advance.


SUPPORT
High Line Programs are supported, in part, with public funds from the New York City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Corey Johnson.

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