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Theatre in Review: Scraps (The Flea Theater)

Roland Lane (left), Alana Raquel Bowers (bottom center), Michael Oloyede (top center) and Tanyamaria (right). Photo: Hunter Canning.

This mishmash of scenes and styles serves up dramatic scraps in its search for the right format to dramatize the aftermath of a young black man's unmotivated killing at the hands of a white cop. The playwright, Geraldine Inoa, makes the very good point that we regularly hear about such incidents -- horrifyingly, they seem to happen daily -- but, she writes in a program note, "we never see how loved ones struggle to cope amidst their anger and grief." Fair enough, and, at times, she probes this open wound with enough power to shake the most complacent member of the audience. But, because Scraps keeps turning into a different play every few minutes, it's easy to become distracted from the ugly, disturbing truths on offer. Dismayingly, the playwright comes close to achieving self-sabotage.

Forest Winthrop, the unseen victim, was a promising football player with a girlfriend and toddler son, before he was gunned down on the streets of Bed-Stuy. The circumstances are never fully explained; Inoa assumes you can fill in the details yourself, and she's probably right about that. In any case, the playwright is concerned with his family and friends, and how violence is spread, like a virus or an inheritance, among them. First up is Jean-Baptiste, Forest's great friend, a would-be rapper who spends much of his time on a stoop, scoring weed and waiting for his life to happen. He confronts us in urgent hip-hop verse, offering a flood of words that carries one along like the rapids of a river. Much of it isn't printable here, but it's hard to forget his jaded -- and scathingly accurate -- observations about gentrification: "Step aside and let these whites in/'Cuz social mobility ain't a sin/Unless you got that dark skin/That shaded pigment/This ain't no figment of my imagination/This here is the fragmentation and institutionalization of a nation/But let's not change the conversation!?" Words as intricate and pointed as these are enough to make anyone sit up and take notice; for all we know, the entire evening will consist of this furiously compelling street verse.

However, Inoa almost instantly drops this approach for straight-up naturalism, adding to the mix Aisha, Forest's lover, who toils long hours as a cashier at Key Foods to provide for her son; Adriana, Aisha's younger sister, an NYU student who, since Forest's death, is subject to panic attacks; and Calvin, who, having enrolled in Columbia, has drifted psychologically from the neighborhood and his old friends. For a while, Inoa weaves an intriguing web out of the characters' clashing agendas and points of view. Aisha unleashes arias of resentment against her job, her coworkers, her friends, and the world -- she nurses a special rage for Forest, who, on that fateful night, was carrying a gun and chose to run from the police. She nags Jean-Baptiste to apply for a janitorial job, savagely disabusing him of the illusion that he is special. Adriana, struggling to hold on to a sense of stability, insists that she alone understands the gravity of Forest's death. And everyone is mad at Calvin, who, having skipped out while the others mourned, returns -- nattily dressed and fitted out with "white" manners -- from a summer in London with a college friend. Nevertheless, he and Aisha, who always had a thing on the side, are ready to take up where they left off; their budding romance is greeted with open hostility by Adriana and Jean-Baptiste.

This situation is riddled with questions: Did Calvin really not come home, all year long, from a university that is only a borough away? Why does everyone treat Calvin like a traitor for attending an Ivy League school, while Adriana gets a pass for enrolling in NYU? (She hates the overprivileged NYU student body, so maybe that makes it all right.) Would Jean-Baptiste really wear a suit and tie to apply for a janitor's job? Also, the affair between Aisha and Calvin is left rather fuzzy; it's not clear how serious it was, especially since Forest was planning on setting up Aisha and their son in the suburbs. (It doesn't help that everyone in the cast seems a little long in the tooth to be playing characters in their late teens.)

No answers are forthcoming, however, since the action takes a sharp turn into melodrama. A booze-fueled bout of impromptu street dancing turns ugly, with Calvin and Jean-Baptiste engaging in fisticuffs. A white cop intervenes, aggressively, and, in a single chilling stroke, everyone suddenly understands that they are one false move from disaster. This scene is an exercise in fear, as tense as anything in the films Blindspotting and Sorry to Bother You, or in Antoinette Nwandu's recent drama, Pass Over. It's a brutal demonstration of the power imbalances that can poison life on our cities' streets -- and it climaxes in a slow-motion arrest that leaves one hanging and eager to find out what happens next.

Instead, the action jumps ahead three years, to the funeral of one of the characters, who has committed suicide. The focus shifts to the heretofore unseen Sebastian, eight-year-old son of Forest and Aisha, who suffers from terrible pains and an animalistic growling in his vitals. (Although the script isn't clear about this, he may still be wearing diapers.) The action makes a sharp left turn into surrealism, consisting of short, savage vignettes in which the boy is menaced by the rest of the cast -- now acting as a kind of hostile Greek chorus -- until he enacts a revenge fantasy on a cop in a pig mask, killing him and chopping him up. But this act of reprisal brings no satisfaction; the terrible noises and physical agony continue, unappeased.

This is by far the weakest sequence in Scraps, in part because it comes across like an imitation Adrienne Kennedy nightmare, in part because its relies on a parody game-show format, surely the most tired of ideas. (Does anyone under sixty watch game shows anymore?) It doesn't help that Inoa tries to drag in gender and sexuality at this late moment, casting a woman as Sebastian and forcing the boy to endure gay epithets hurled by the others. At this point, one is sorely tempted to surrender any sense of engagement; there seems little point in caring about any of the characters or their situations, since they will be pulled away before anything like a resolution can occur. The playwright may well be making the point that there can be no such thing, that the terror under which her characters live is ongoing and unlikely to change. Even if so, her methodology undermines her argument; there are serious, thoughtful, authentically upsetting ideas here, but they are erected on a foundation of sand.

Niegel Smith, who directed, certainly engages the script's hairpin turns with skill, accompanied by a strong cast drawn from The Bats, the theatre's resident company. The standout here is Alana Raquel Bowers, who is stunning when delivering Aisha's relentless bill of complaints and oddly tender when turning to Calvin for comfort. Aisha had her escape all mapped out, only to have it stolen, and Bowers makes something incandescent out of her anger. As Jean-Baptiste, Roland Lane handles the jumpy, caffeinated verse with ease, making it seem almost conversational; like Bowers, he is gifted with enormous stage presence. Tanyamaria's Adriana is alternately defiant and terrified, and plausibly so; her breathless episodes are painful to watch. Calvin isn't much of a character -- Inoa never really gives him a chance -- but Michael Oloyede convinces one that there is more to him than meets the eye. The adult actress Bryn Carter trenchantly explores the roots of Sebastian's terror and agony, making us feel the demons that are, seemingly literally, gnawing at him.

The set designer, Ao Li, convincingly evokes a Brooklyn street with only a closed storefront, painted over with the face of the Notorious B.I.G., a combination stoop and door, and the pole of a streetlight, sporting a "walk" sign. Kate McGee's lighting shapes the space skillfully, giving it a noirish look. Andy Jean's costumes -- especially Calvin's carefully worked-out casual college look -- have much to say about each character. Megan Deets Culley's sound design includes a hip-hop playlist before the show along with such effects as gunshots, birdsong, a car alarm, a church congregation, news show theme music, and that indelible "dun dun" sound from Law and Order.

Inoa has been working in television recently, so it's possible she may have seized the chance to break out of a rigid weekly formula and experiment with structure. Her instincts may be good, but Scraps is all over the place; every time it starts to become compelling -- which is often -- the playwright upends her gameboard and issues a new set of rules. This has a dampening effect on what could have been a white-hot drama. She makes it much too easy to tune out. -- David Barbour

(4 September 2018)

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