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The Tenement Lament’s Testament: “Scraps’ Last Scrape”

scraps

Ahkei Togun, Denise Yolén, Tyrin Niles and Ashlee Olivia (Photo by I.C. Rapoport)

SCRAPS Theater Review

[SPOILER ALERT!: Because of this drama’s subject matter this review may contain plot spoilers.]

As earthquakes struck SoCal a theatrical aftershock rocked the L.A. stage on July 6 with the West Coast premiere of Scraps. Geraldine Inoa’s brilliant, powerful play is at the cutting edge of the stage and screen cycle of productions reacting to the surge of police and vigilante killings of African Americans and/or the judicial system’s unjust mistreatment of Blacks. And Scraps is among the best of these works protesting racial injustice and inequity perpetrated (and perpetuated) by those perps/twerps - the “men” in blue and in robes (sometimes black, sometimes white).

Inspired by Michael Brown’s murder, Inoa’s Scraps focuses on how these injustices reverberate in the minds and lives of loved ones left behind after discriminatory slayings occur.

Inspired by Michael Brown’s murder, Inoa’s Scraps focuses on how these injustices reverberate in the minds and lives of loved ones left behind after these discriminatory slayings occur. This may surprise some because according to racial tropes, African Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to have unconscious minds, but Inoa begs to differ.

Act I is set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant (where I was born and attended fifth grade), America’s largest Black community, as four traumatized friends at a tenement lament Forest Winthrop’s (an offstage presence) demise months after the promising football player’s death at NYPD’s hands. Hanging out on the stoop, Jean-Baptiste Delacroix (Tyrin Niles, who had recurring roles in the BET series American Soul and Tyler Perry Studios’ Meet the Browns), who is of Haitian background, clashes with visiting Calvin Young (Ahkei Togun) because he has committed the unpardonable sin of moving away from the Bed-Stuy ’hood where they grew up to better himself by attending (and living near) Columbia University in Manhattan. It seems like the old crabs-in-the-bucket syndrome is at play here. And Jean-Baptiste appears to be a shiftless, pot smoking, ne’er-do-well “Blacker” (stereotypical Black slacker, to coin a phrase), but in fact he is an aspiring rapper and poet.

The weary Aisha Douglas (Denise Yolén, co-star of the films Sankofa City and Sundays in July) is the beautiful mother of Forest’s son Sebastian. She’s tired from working in a low wage job, although Aisha feels this endows her with the dignity of not having to rely on the government for “handouts”. At the stoop Aisha, who wears her hair in braids, takes Jean-Baptiste to task for being unemployed and urges him to attend a job fair. In a lighter moment with a droll reference to The Brady Bunch’s “Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!” exhortations, someone exclaims: “Aisha! Aisha! Aisha!”

When Aisha’s sister Adriana (NAACP Best Supporting Actress award winner Ashlee Olivia, who has acted in Robey Theatre Company productions and performs a one-woman Eartha Kitt show) first appears she looks like a crackhead. However, Adriana is a student at NYU (where playwright Inoa and Yolén studied) - of course, one could be a drug abuser as well as a university pupil, but the point is that as with Jean-Baptiste, there’s a lot more going on with her beneath the surface. Just as Jean-Baptiste beefs with Calvin for pursuing whitey’s higher education, Adriana causes Jean-Baptiste to take a detour from going to that jobs fair, perpetuating poverty’s vicious circle.

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Ashlee Olivia, Denise Yolén and Tyrin Niles (Photo by I.C. Rapoport)

Jean-Baptiste also resents Calvin for romancing Aisha, who has a strong feminist scene wherein she asserts her right to “fuck” whoever she damn well pleases. In addition to dropping the so-called “F-bomb,” for some reason the “N-word” is used 75-ish times by the cast, mostly in the first act. Some may perceive this to be gratuitous and be offended by repetitive usage of what is often hurled by nonwhites as a racial slur. Others may regard the frequent incorporation of the “N-word” in the dialogue to be a sign of realism.

In any case, the quartet talks and plays music loudly. A policeman (ex-Marine and intelligence officer Stan Mayer is cannily cast as the play’s sole Caucasian) rousts them for disturbing the peace. He sexually molests Aisha, as Scraps repeats one of Western literature’s most recurring tropes since Jezebel in the Old Testament: Any woman who takes control of her own sexuality and enjoys having orgasms must be punished (if not killed).

A confrontation between Calvin and the NYPD officer ensues (having a Black skin trumps attending Columbia University in racist Amerikkka’s bigoted hierarchy). This ignites a riot and Ashlee hangs herself on a street sign marked “Myrtle Ave.” (I grew up about 2 blocks from Myrtle Avenue) in a sort of self-lynching.

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If Scraps’ first act is in the Clifford Odets’ social realist tradition, Act II sharply veers towards Theatre of the Absurd. There is no intermission as after a brief pause the surrealistic second act abruptly takes us inside the mind of Forest’s child, Sebastian Winthrop, and dramatizes not only African American angst, but Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Among other things, the four characters from Act I act out an absurd game show wherein Sebastian tries to cope with his dad’s death at the hands of the men in blue. When a policeman in a pig’s head appears Sebastian finds a pistol inside his father’s coffin and offs the pig, as police violence comes home to roost.

Damon Rutledge, who is a grown man, portrays the eight-year-old Sebastian, which is part of a trend of adults playing children, as in the current Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, which likewise deals with the injustice system’s abusive treatment of Blacks by white supremacists (not even the fabled Atticus Finch could save poor Tom from whitey’s racism!). Although only a child, Sebastian realizes he is gay, heightening his confusion vis-à-vis the patriarchal, heterosexual and white-dominated world.

The second act of Scraps elevates the narrative and prevents the foursome seen in Act I from being mere stereotypes pursuing caricaturish behavior and dialogue. The play’s totally unexpected descent (ascent?) into absurdity is a startling transition into a Samuel Beckett-like realm - call it “Scraps’ Last Scrape.” It is well-acted and expertly helmed by Obie-award winning director Stevie Walker-Webb, but to carry this shocking departure from social realism to the Theatre of the Absurd requires the entire cast and crew’s collective creativity.

Costume designer Wendell C. Carmichael’s (American Saga: Gunshot Medley) garb for the quartet in the second act consists of what appears to be tight fitting brown undergarments, which suggests nudity, while allowing the actual actors a measure of modesty on the live stage. Scenic designer John Iacovelli’s set is transmuted from a realistic representation of Bed-Stuy to evoking the imaginative landscape of Sebastian’s troubled mind. Co-lighting designers Brian Gale and Zo Haynes, plus veteran sound designer Jeff Gardner, cooperate to bring Inoa’s script vividly to the stage. And kudos to the FX rigger Ian O’Connor (a stage and screen stalwart of special effects), which strongly enhance and move forward the play.

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Tyrin Niles and Ashlee Olivia (Photo by I.C. Rapoport)

Scraps world premiered Off-Off-Broadway at the Flea Theater and The N.Y. Times called Inoa “a playwright to watch.” Now in her late twenties Inoa writes for AMC’s zombie series The Walking Dead and is an alumnus of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group and the first recipient of The Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission. Inoa has described herself as a survivor of childhood abuse and “queer.”

Scraps is at the forefront of the stage and screen cycle depicting police/court/vigilante transgressions against African Americans, which includes Dionna Michelle Daniel’s Gunshot Medley, Broadway’s Mockingbird, The Central Park Five opera and Ava DuVernay’s Netflix version of that gross miscarriage of justice. Unlike the others, Inoa’s work includes armed retaliation against the pigs, injecting a note of militancy. What was Inoa’s intention? The grand finale reminded me of two quotations, including Chairman Mao’s oft-repeated: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The other quotation is attributed to revolutionary psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, but may actually be Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s interpretation and characterization of Fanon’s philosophy. In any case, the notion could be paraphrased as: “The oppressed will regain their manhood by cutting off the head of their oppressors.”

Whatever Inoa’s intent, she is emerging as a major new dramatic force and Scraps not only announces her scrappy appearance on the stage, but serves as a stark warning to the powers that be. Delivering a knockout blow, Scraps is one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time - although it’s not for children or those with weak stomachs (or ears). It is disturbing, upsetting theater - but not to be missed by anyone who loves the dramatization of tragedy and is concerned with the troubling subject of racism. Go see it - even if it’s at your own peril. Scraps received a standing ovation on opening night and is rated: BRAVO!

Scraps is being performed Mondays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Sept. 15 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles 90048. For info: (323) 960-7711. For tickets: www.matrixtheatre.com.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”, which he’ll be signing at Hollywood’s The Egyptian Theatre on July 13 during “Tiki Night.”