A male African-American Columbia student menaced without cause by a white police officer brandishing a nightstick, thrown to the ground and then handcuffed is a powerful highlight of playwright Geraldine Inoa’s raw, edgy and searing drama Scraps.
Director Niegel Smith’s staging of that outrage is hypnotic as freezes, slow motion, blaring music and pulsing lighting are employed to stunning effect. Violence choreographer Michael G. Chin’s masterful moves aid considerably to this bit and to several other altercations on display. However, Mr. Smith’s sustained stage wizardry only goes so far as the play’s opening is overdone and its conclusion unsatisfyingly departs from realism. In between there are moments of greatness.
You see, the masters used to keep the best of the best to themselves: all the ham, all the pork roast, whatever goodness came out of the animals they slaughtered and the ground they defiled, they kept to themselves. Greedy, inconsiderate muthafuckas they were. And they gave us, the slaves I mean, scraps. The leftovers.
We’re in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn during Labor Day weekend in 2014. We learn that over the previous Memorial Day weekend, 19-year-old Forest Winthrop was shot to death by the police while running away. He was a college football star and was out to buy diapers for his 5-year-old son that he had with his 20-year-old unmarried girlfriend Aisha. Her grand plans to be a star athlete’s wife have been shattered and she now works long shifts at a neighborhood supermarket. Witnessing the assault was her younger sister Adriana, a New York University student who has since become traumatized.
Scraps opens with the unemployed, would-be rapper and pot-smoking Haitian-American Jean-Baptiste Delacroix sitting on a stoop delivering an expositional tirade. It’s a hip hop poetry slam-style screed laden with profanity and racial slurs that becomes unsettling and barely fits into the overall arc of the work.
Calvin, an overachieving student who has escaped the neighborhood by going to Columbia University arrives after a three-month London stay to visit his mother. He was friends with everyone but there’s tension due to his comparative success.
The core of Scraps is taken up with dramatizing the relationships between these four characters and how Forest’s death has impacted them. Ms. Inoa accomplishes this by initially developing her topical and culturally relevant scenario with piercing realism.
A writer on The Walking Dead, Inoa is a Shonda Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission recipient. Her impressive dialogue evokes the milieu’s despair with wistful poetic flourishes amidst tremendous use of the “N-word” and abundant obscenities. There is a lovely exchange between Adriana and Jean-Baptiste when she sees him reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. “I know he calls it Dublin, but it could be anywhere. Where you live is who you are, but who you are is where you live…”
The play’s second act takes place three years later over Fourth of July weekend. Following a harrowing incident, it then veers off into wild fantasy. This lengthy portion stylistically clashes with the bulk of the work with its 1960’s-style counterculture theatrics. It could be interpreted as a metaphorical depiction of the crushing of black youth’s spirits by the forces of society.
This production is presented by The Flea and the cast is drawn from their resident acting company, The Bats. Exhibiting heartbreaking resilience Alana Raquel Bowers as Aisha dominates the play. The captivating Tanyamaria is very funny yet conveys Adriana’s melancholy. With his lithe physique, sunniness and serene presence Michael Oloyede’s performance as Calvin is commanding. Roland Lane’s charisma and animation enrich his portrayal of the difficult role of Jean-Baptiste.
This gifted quartet vividly portray other fantastical characters in the second act and are joined by Bryn Carter who hurls herself into her eerie part with total commitment. As the Cop, the youthful and low-key Andrew Baldwin offers a chilling characterization of most everyone’s worst nightmare of a hostile policeman. Switching from benign to sadistic with subtle swiftness, Mr. Baldwin is terrifying.
A street art-style mural of rapper Notorious B.I.G drawn on the iron gate of a bodega pulls focus during the first act. Ao Li’s atmospheric scenic design also includes a stoop adjacent to a door, a trash can, a traffic light and a stage strewn with cigarette butts, liquor bottles in paper bags, and various other forms of debris.
Lighting Designer Kate McGee provides a dynamic palette of hues, spotlights and blackouts that perfectly illuminate the actions. Megan Deets Culley’s sound design is a crashing blend of rap songs that punctuate the scene transitions and ominous effects such as gunfire and police sirens. Costume designer Andy Jean clothes everyone in appropriate everyday wear with idiosyncratic twists that personalize the characters.
Scraps succeeds when its passionate eloquence is simply expressed and it falters during its avant-garde detours.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been born. Maybe he shouldn’t have existed. Maybe none of us should exist. Maybe we should go back to being in chains and shackles because apparently that was much easier for everyone. Now the shackles are invisible, but the imprisonment is the same. Oh, he was running! Oh, he was wearing a hoodie! Oh, his music was too loud! How dare he?! We are not objects, we are not fixtures, we are living, breathing human beings. Stop punishing us for being alive.
Scraps (extended through September 29, 2018)
The Siggy at The Flea, 20 Thomas Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-226-0051 or visit http://www.theflea.org
Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission