We are sadly used to hearing high-profile stories about young, unarmed black men shot by white police officers, but what happens when the media attention fades and the victim’s family must find a way to continue living after their world has been shattered? This is what playwright Geraldine Inoa explores in Scraps, a play currently in its west coast premiere at the Matrix Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Provocative and bold, this stylistic piece blends slam poetry and surrealism into the story, resulting in a piece that makes a statement and holds nothing back.
Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the first act takes place during the summer of 2014 in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. Around Memorial Day, Forest Winthrop, back in town after a successful freshman year of college in Florida on a football scholarship, is out picking up diapers for his son at the request of his girlfriend. In his haste, having procrastinated the errand all day, he ends up running back. He is shot multiple times and killed by a white officer. By Labor Day, Forest’s loved ones are still struggling to regain any sense of normalcy. There’s Aisha (Denise Yolén), the mother of Forest’s son, Sebastian, who is pouring herself into work and doing her best to keep her chin up and provide for her child. She is constantly encouraging her friend Jean-Baptiste (Tyrin Niles), a high school dropout, to get his life together and get a job, but he has dreams of becoming a rapper one day and prefers waxing philosophical on the front steps. Aisha’s younger sister, Adriana (Ashlee Olivia) has taken Forest’s death the hardest of all, haunted by nightmares of the shooting that have left her mental health hanging by a thread. And then there’s Calvin (Ahkei Togun), fresh off his freshman year at Columbia, and back in the neighborhood for the first time since the shooting.
Understandably, tensions are high. Aisha doesn’t understand why Adriana is the one who is allowed to fall to pieces when she didn’t know Forest as well. Jean-Baptiste resents Calvin for not being around when tragedy struck, and for his complicated relationship with Aisha. And they are all afraid of the police (one officer is played by Stan Mayer), and for good reason. The first act unfolds as a series of scenes between this group of friends as they struggle to sort out their grief and feelings, culminating sadly in another tragedy that plays out on onstage with unflinching brutality, forcing the audience to face a sobering reality.
The second act takes a hard turn into surrealism as well as a leap into the future. The whole thing is a sort of fever dream that takes place in the mind of Sebastian (Damon Rutledge), who is now 8-years-old. He is played by an adult, a wise choice given the mature nature of the material, but he is struggling to come to terms with his father’s death and his own burgeoning—and confusing—sexuality. The other members of the ensemble prance around in flesh-toned undergarments as they tease and taunt Sebastian, prodding him to dig deep into his psyche for answers about his father and himself. It is a messed-up game show where the only prize is more trauma. As absurd as it is, it is a highly creative and bold exploration of the theme that is beautifully realized in Walker-Webb’s direction. It seems designed to be polarizing, especially given what a departure it is from the mostly conventional first half, but it is what makes Scraps stand out as something radical and different, unafraid of probing into uncomfortable territory.
All of the performances are stunning, and the way the ensemble works together to create the artistic vision that is act two is impressive. Yolén is fantastic as the grieving girlfriend determined to put on a brave face and not live in fear just because of what happened. Because she is deliberately the most even-keeled, it makes her performance even more powerful in a devastating moment when another white cop nearly breaks her. Niles is great as the brooding Jean-Baptiste, the most in-touch with his feelings, and therefore the one who is struggling the most to move on. His bond with, and crush on, Adriana makes for some sweet moments, and Olivia plays the struggling sister’s snark and anxiety well, with the first constantly trying to mask the latter. Togun does well with the difficult task of playing the outsider of the group, trying to be reaccepted and redefine his relationship with his friends and neighborhood after time away, and Rutledge plays Sebastian’s child-like fears very well, breaking hearts with his pain.
During one of the play’s funniest moments, Adriana complains to Jean-Baptiste about how bland white people food is, and she comments that black people were given only scraps, but from those they learned to make soul food. Scraps is such an excellent title for this play. Structurally, it is in fact fragmented, from the snapshots of scenes to the exploration of Sebastian’s mind and a poem by Jean-Baptiste that opens the show. But on a deeper, brutal level, Sebastian, Aisha, Adriana, Calvin, and Jean-Baptiste are all the scraps left over from the tragedy that was Forest’s death. They were discarded, left over once the media attention faded, once the cameras moved on to the family and neighborhood of the next tragic victim. But, just as with the soul food, it is up to them to do their best to turn those scraps into something, and watching them try makes for some memorable and powerful theater.
Scraps runs at the Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles through September 15th. Performances are Saturdays and Mondays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets are $35, except for Monday performances, which are Pay What You Want, and can be purchased here.