Theater Review: SCRAPS (Matrix Theatre Company)

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by Tony Frankel on July 31, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


The angry young man syndrome is nothing new — think Protestant reformer Martin Luther! — but it sure found a home in the theater when British playwright John Osborne wrote the seminal Look Back in Anger in 1956. Jimmy, the uptight, rebellious, protesting candy-seller who detests the haves, attacks the Establishment as he tries to avoid the “cruel steel traps” the world has set out for him. As Odets, Ibsen, and Shaw did decades before him, Osborne spoke for a generation wanting to break down class barriers and their many inherent obstacles to getting ahead. His vital, emotional theater was what he dreamed it always would be: “A weapon…one of the most decisive weapons of our time.”

Political propaganda is also nothing new. Better known by its portmanteau “agitprop,” this tool is used to influence and mobilize public opinion, often with coarse ridicule, stereotype and/or caricature. Invented to propagate Communism, agitprop has successfully been used in plays such as Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

Now on at The Matrix Theatre, Geraldine Inoa’s bold new work Scraps takes elements of both realist play and agitprop but she unfortunately gets in her own way by flipping from searing drama to mystifying agenda-ridden claptrap, making me wonder just who this play is ultimately for.

You wanna see some of the most exciting playwriting and raw, powerful acting you’ve seen in years? Go see the first half, in which Inoa’s portrayal of everyday life for these disenfranchised folks was written without compromise or sentimentality. You wanna see the “second  act” fever dream blame-fest? Good luck. And when I say that, I mean, good luck figuring out why a brilliant, humorous, examination of a community’s recovery from the wrongful death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer goes into a meta-stratosphere which I doubt Martin Esslin, Harold Clurman, and Walter Kerr could figure out.

In front of a brownstone in New York, folks who knew black teenager Forest congregate over a Memorial Day weekend in 2014. Forest’s high-school buddy (Ahkei Togun) who missed the funeral; a wannabe rapper (Tyrin Niles); Forest’s sister (Ashlee Olivia); and his left-behind girlfriend (Denise Yolén) will argue, remember, confront, laugh, have sex, hang out, go to work; fight and get high. Inoa’s dialogue is brutal and accurate (expect to hear “nigga” a lot) with a startlingly believable patois. These are people trying desperately to survive the harsh reality of being black in America. Her characters are both sufferers and those who are determined to move out of their perilous plight. It’s unsettling and highly entertaining at the same time. Universal themes of love, honor, duty, and betrayal are all there. The hairs rose up on the back of my neck thinking I was witnessing the new standard-bearer for black playwrights.

Clearly, Inoa is on to something grand in her discussion of the effects of racism, but it starts to go amiss halfway into the 90-minute one-act when a white cop comes on stage to terrorize the innocent men. Later, when he fingers a black woman’s vagina, it is beyond racism; it’s barbarism. And it simply doesn’t make sense that this would occur just three months after a black teen was shot at the very same site (and it certainly doesn’t make sense given that it happens in broad daylight). Obviously, the playwright is creating discomfort to induce some kind of — I don’t know — white liberal guilt, but it’s unearned, unnecessary and I didn’t buy it. Still, I empathized with the characters’ plight up until one of them commits suicide by hanging, which also feels unearned — or, rather, out of nowhere — regardless of the disquieting, horrific situation watching someone dangle from a street sign.

Director Stevie-Walker Webb, who knows how to meld actor and role with aplomb, drops the ball when it comes to creating place and time; there’s no point-of-view in the first act staging. John Iacovelli’s set of a run-down part of the soon-to-be-gentrified Bed Stuy is great, but the actors rarely leave center stage and there are no street sounds (children, passing pedestrians, cars). No doubt designers Jeff Gardner (sound) and Brian Gale & Zo Haynes (lights) had their hands full with the discomfiting technological hubbub to come, and it’s just after the hanging that the show transmogrifies into a brave but bemusing second half.

The set glides away. A small boy, played by a larger and much older man (Damon Rutledge), is in some kind of hellish children’s show involving the other actors wearing tight, brown body stockings; after a very very long section of changing lights and intentionally broad acting, the boy discovers that white-on-black racism creates a sort of eternal damnation. I think. I kept wondering why the second act didn’t involve the actual six-year-old son three years after the shooting, living in his own personal aftermath without all of that damn meta-theatricality. Figuring out what is going on here is too much work.

What will you see? A ballsy play? The horror of racism? Personally, I was distanced to the point that I no longer wanted to recommend the show. I overheard someone saying afterward that it was making fun of minstrel shows. Another said that the fever dream should come first; the realism later. An Asian man said, “They sure ain’t talking to me.” The bottom line is this: the end has been an obvious attempt to make sure that viewers leave the theater thinking; unfortunately, this device diffuses the bomb that could have gone off.

Irreverence toward the Establishment and disgust at the survival of class distinctions and privilege continues into this millennium, but the verbal war right now is so ubiquitous — online, on TV, and in the news — that playwrights don’t seem inspired to combat the disparity between being at the table and not having a seat at all. It’s more of a blame game. Angry voices of those legitimately disenfranchised are coming from everywhere you look: women, people of color, souls incapable of surviving in their country of birth, and, yes, even angry white men who have lost livelihoods and see no retirement in their future.

Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun remains timeless and thought-provoking because we understand that a family’s struggle against oppression is not only a universal condition, but an ongoing one. All of us will always be “coming out,” as it were, from our past into our true selves. Scraps exemplifies a new kind of theater which can be called Theater of Blame. There is little universality. Only shaming and guilt. I love provocation, but I don’t need to be told what to think; I want to be inspired.

Perhaps Ms. Inoa knew there was no way to resolve her superb story. The awful, messy section that ends the 90-minute one-act keeps this endeavor from being a theatrical epiphany, and it robs the audience of experiencing the stunning devastation which occurs when we are confronted by that almost inconceivable phenomenon: the human condition. The amazing beginning had me pondering race relations to the hilt, and was the best kind of political art. The message had been delivered. I didn’t need it hammered home.

photos by I.C. Rapoport and Stan Mayer

Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave.
Sat at 8; Sun at 3; Mon (Pay What You Can) at 8
ends on September 15, 2019
for tickets, call 323.960.7711 or go to Matrix

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