Scraps, a new work by award-winning playwright Geraldine Inoa, begins like an ancient Greek play would—with a prologue that sets the stage for the drama. In Scraps, however, a character, Jean-Baptiste (Roland Lane) raps the prologue from the stoop of an apartment building in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. “Allow me to be your Greek chorus,” he says to the audience, and his rhymes paint a portrait of the neighborhood in 2014, where the injustices of police violence are keenly felt. Indeed, a police officer has just shot neighborhood local Forest Winthrop, who was on the way home with diapers for his son.
Though it begins with a nod to Greek plays, Scraps soon turns to straight theatrical realism. Trying to mirroring reality, the play examines a complex range of burdens borne by many African Americans in the U.S. Inoa’s dialogue between characters reveals these struggles; for example, the character Aisha (Alana Raquel Bowers) returns from work at a grocery store and just wants to rub her feet and blow off some steam to Calvin, a childhood chum who attends Columbia and is visiting his old friends after doing research in London.
Through Aisha’s words, the audience glimpses the enormous pressures put on black women left behind by victims of police brutality. With Inoa’s rich script (it won the Shonda Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission) as her base, Bowers delivers a compelling performance of a widowed single mom who lives under the constant scrutiny of her community: either she cries too loudly over her dead boyfriend, or she grieves too little and moves on to other men far too quickly; and, of course, there is an endless supply of opinions on how she should raise the son she had with Forest.
Calvin (Michael Oloyede), too, lives under a great deal of pressure to code-switch between different modes of “blackness,” particularly his background as a Bed-Stuy local and his role as a Columbia student, which are at odds. Adriana, a student at New York University, also deals with this dual lifestyle, but unlike Calvin, she still lives in the neighborhood and is reminded daily of her friend Forest’s untimely death. Rather than distill America’s “race problem” into one easy-to-swallow capsule, Inoa’s first part exposes the enormity and staggering range of hardships that exist in a contemporary society that is anything but post-race.
Under Niegel Smith’s direction, Bowers as Aisha and Tanyamaria as Adriana give notably complex, thoughtful performances. Tanyamaria shines in a diatribe about hating white people that is arguably the play’s most hilarious moment. The cast as a whole is especially strong in a night scene when everyone gathers on the stoop to dance and rap along to “Notorious Thugs” by Notorious B.I.G. In a moment of pure joy they can celebrate Forest’s life and revel in the music that unites them in a world that is always daring to divide them.
Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G., grew up close to the setting of Scraps and also died prematurely; he is a cultural specter throughout. Indeed, Ao Li’s set design features a mural of Biggie’s face that echoes an actual mural. Overall, Li’s set, though small enough to fit the intimate space, features a surprising amount of detail—the ubiquitous public trash cans, a graffitied streetlight, and meticulously placed trash. One problem however, is the stoop—the heart and home of the play’s setting. Although it rotates beautifully for Act II, it wiggles when actors jump or dance on it, or climb the stairs. Unfortunately, the instability detracts from the production’s overall visual appeal.
Although Scraps has no intermission, it transitions sharply into a starkly different second half. Act II abruptly introduces Sebastian Winthrop, Forest’s son, who walks us through a surrealist-nightmare-cum-game-show that jams together his confused feelings about his late father with his bodily anxieties of prepubescence. The sequence is influenced by the boy’s countless hours watching daytime television programs while his mother was at work, and his continued unanswered questions about his father. The audience is lurched, probably intentionally, into an entirely new genre and style of acting, which the ensemble handles with grace and dedication. But, for the audience, there is little time to process the harsh realities of the first act before being viscerally exposed to the scary, anxious, grotesque expressions of the second.
In any case, Scraps provides rich character opportunities for a cast of primarily of black actors; instead of the usual “token black,” there is one token white character in this play, a police officer played by Andrew Baldwin with haughty, stoic aggression that’s chilling.
It could be argued that Inoa’s (and Baldwin’s) diminution of police presence to one stereotyped character is the same kind of reductive move made by pro-police, anti–Black Lives Matter sympathizers in stereotyping the savage, violent “unidentified black man” in a hoodie. However, Scraps more than compensates by compassionately revealing both the ideas and feelings of young black Brooklynites affected by racial profiling and gun violence. As rapper Childish Gambino says in his wildly popular music video, “This is America,” and Scraps obliges us to look and think critically about what that means.
Geraldine Inoa’s Scraps runs through Sept. 24 at the Flea Theater (20 Thomas St. in Manhattan). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday through Monday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call (212) 352-3101 or visit theflea.org.