Police in the United States shot and killed 36 unarmed black men in 2015; 18 in 2016; 19 in 2017, and 12 so far in 2018, according to the Washington Post.
In “Scraps,” Geraldine Inoa, making a memorable professional playwriting debut, imagines the deep and lasting after-effects on the people left behind when police kill somebody – telling the survivors’ stories through a theatrical filter that goes from lyrical to naturalistic to surreal.
We first meet the disheveled, 20-year-old Jean-Baptiste Delacroix (Roland Lane), as he sits on a stoop on the corner of Myrtle and Tompkins Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He is rapping a spontaneous spoken-word poem about the shooting death of his friend Forest Winthrop on that very street corner just 12 hours earlier. He offers few details of the killing, and much commentary: “Yo, they might have stopped hangin’ us from trees./ But a century later, they still cuttin’ black people at the knees.” The lyrical mixes with the language of the streets, and nods to formal tragedy — “Allow me to be your Greek chorus,” he says, speaking directly to the audience; he identifies his poem as the prologue, before he starts smoking a joint.
Then there is a blackout, a projection tells us it’s three months later, Labor Day Weekend, 2014, and the scenes that follow feel rooted in everyday reality, involving Jean-Baptiste and three of his friends and neighbors: Calvin (Michael Oloyede), who’s completed his freshman year at Columbia; Adriana (Tanyamaria), a student at NYU; and Aisha (Alana Raquel Bowers), Adriana’s sister. The conversation seems casual, although it clues us into the characters’ complex relationships. They have a palpable past with one another.
They worry they may not have a future. We eventually learn how each has been affected by the shooting, some more obviously than others. Aisha expresses anger at Forest, the father of her child, for running at night (he was rushing to bring her diapers for their kid, Sebastian), which made the police suspicious; she irrationally blames him for his death. Her sister Adriana has a recurrent nightmare in which she is Forest’s killer. As if she can’t escape the nightmare even when she’s awake, she now wears pajamas during the day. She is shaken, and bitter.
“I hate white people,” Adriana says at one point. “Not all the time, but sometimes.”.
“But they run the world,” Jean-Baptiste replies.
“Let them have it,” Adriana says. “This world ain’t shit.”
In an impromptu memorial ritual, all four pour their drinks on the ground in front of the mural (courtesy of set designer Ao Li) of the rapper Notorious B.I.G. painted on the wall of an abandoned bodega (Biggie’s songs, from “Respect” to “You’re Nobody (Till Somebody Kills You)”, supply the background music throughout the show, with the characters occasionally singing along.)
These scenes form the bulk of the play and are the most accessible and engaging. They are abruptly interrupted by a terrifying encounter with a suddenly materialized, brutal police officer. The incident produces devastating results for at least one of the characters we’ve gotten to know.
The play then suddenly changes tone in its second act (which segues from the first without an intermission), occurring some three years later. It begins as a funeral and morphs into what might be the internal stream-of-consciousness of Sebastian (Bryn Carter), Forest’s son, now eight years old. A growling noise comes from Sebastian’s body, but it is not from hunger. It’s never diagnosed, and never extinguished. A good guess would be fear, confusion and sorrow. Sebastian has built his father into a mythic figure.
This section of “Scraps” recalls early absurdist works by Adrienne Kennedy and Amiri Baraka, as well the recent play “Is God Is” by Aleshea Harris, in that it uses a surreal playfulness that’s indistinguishable from horror; the other actors crowd around Sebastian, teasing and taunting, impersonating cartoonishly snobby and indifferent white people. (Judging by the name-calling, we are meant to understand that he’s gay.) This extended scene might have been more effective if the playwright had avoided including a TV quiz show format (complete with oppressively cheerful host), which has become a clichéd way of depicting life-as-a-game and the world as shallow and insensitive.
“Scraps” is the first play of the new season at The Flea Theater, which artistic director Niegel Smith has branded “Color Brave” – as in, a step beyond color conscious. Smith is also the director of this play, and he has gotten impressively convincing performances out of the cast of young actors from The Bats, the Flea’s resident company. We accept (in the naturalistic middle section) that their characters are intelligent and decent, that they care for one another even as they bicker, which makes their feelings of hopelessness and terror all the more depressing.
This is not an easy play. It confronts the audience with uncomfortable language, disorients with its shifts of tone, and demands that we enter into an unrelievedly racist world and a starkly Manichean worldview. Geraldine Inoa’s current day job is writing for AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and so she spends much time imagining a world of apocalyptic fear, monstrous violence and anxiety about the future. On the evidence of “Scraps,” she doesn’t see it as all that different from Brooklyn.
Written by Geraldine Inoa
Directed by Niegel Smith
Ao Li (Set Designer), Andy Jean (Costume Designer), Kate McGee (Lighting Designer), Megan Deets Culley (Sound Designer), Michael G. Chin (Violence Choreographer)
Cast: Kieron J. Anthony, Andrew Baldwin, Alana Raquel Bowers, Bryn Carter, Ure Egbuho, Christopher Garofalo, Roland Lane, Michael Oloyede, Tanyamaria and Camille Upshaw.
Running time: 85 minutes
“Scraps” is on stage through September 24, 2018