A new vibrant era in African American playwriting seen in Geraldine Inoa and Dionna M. Daniel’s latest
Geraldine Inoa’s “Scraps” and Dionna M. Daniel’s “Gunshot Medley” explore pain in the fight for control over black bodies in America and demonstrate exciting new directions in African American stage works
Control of black bodies is a longstanding theme of our national narrative. The issue recurs in different forms, from slavery through Jim Crow to mass incarceration and the all-too-routine police shootings that undermine any simple notion of inexorable progress.
History unfolds, yet the injustice of white oppression and black suffering persists. Two plays by rising young talents at intimate venues this summer call attention to the need for new dramatic models to grapple with this agonizingly circular subject.
Geraldine Inoa’s “Scraps” (at the Matrix Theatre under the direction of Stevie Walker-Webb) and Dionna M. Daniel’s “Gunshot Medley: Part 1” (at the Electric Lodge under the direction of Desean K. Terry) refuse to stick to conventional pathways. These playwrights recognize the limits of straightforward psychological realism, with its default of linear plotting, in telling stories about the fate of black lives in an amnesiac America that’s ever-resourceful at recycling its racism.
Beginning as a slice of inner-city life, “Scraps” is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Jay-Z famously rapped his way out of the projects. A stoop scrawled with graffiti is the site of the gripping first hour of this fascinating if uneven 90-minute play about a group of black neighbors in their early 20s whose lives have been upended by the death of one of their own at the hands of a white police officer.
“What’s past is prologue,” Jean-Baptiste Delacroix (Tyrin Niles) raps to us in the play’s introduction. He’s trying to connect the historical dots while smoking some weed to help him both remember and forget. Unable to restart his life after his friend Forest, a 19-year-old dad with a college football scholarship to propel him forward, was senselessly killed, Jean-Baptiste contextualizes his grief to understand it better: “Yo, they might have stopped hangin’ us from trees / But a century later, they still cuttin’ black people at the knees.”
Dramaturgical dissonance is symptomatic of a larger racial discordance. Narrative coherence implies progress, development, resolution.
— Charles McNulty
The characters in “Scraps” don’t couch their justifiable fury, unless there’s a cop nearby looking for a reason to throw on the handcuffs. Aisha (Denise Yolén), whose child was fathered by Forest, rails and rages to keep herself from succumbing to despair. She vents about her blabbermouth coworker, complains bitterly about her aching feet, goes ballistic if anyone questions her mothering and reads Jean-Baptiste the riot act for wallowing in sadness rather than looking for a job.
When Aisha learns that he doesn’t want to interview for a janitor position, she loses it: “You keep talkin’ like you got options. Like you got choices. You ain’t window shoppin’. Stop being a little boy, sittin’ on ya little stoop, readin’ ya little book, waitin’ for life to happen to you. Get up. Be a man. Get a job. Contribute.”
She’s not much softer on her sister, Adriana (Ashlee Olivia), an NYU student whose mental health has spiraled since Forest’s death. Aisha can’t stand to see Adriana stumbling outside in her pajamas like “a drunk bum,” but her sister’s obvious fragility has her tempering her tongue even though she can’t understand how Adriana might have PTSD “when she wasn’t even there, she wasn’t involved, and she ain’t have anythin’ happen to her.”
Calvin (Ahkei Togun), who after finishing his freshman year at Columbia went to stay with a new friend in London, has returned home for the weekend to visit his mother. His absence has sown resentment rather than fondness, especially in Jean-Baptise, who can’t understand how Calvin can so blithely move on with his life after what happened to their friend.
Playwright Inoa, a theater and television writer who’s a story editor on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” intriguingly complicates these relationships, though the play’s episodic structure has a looseness that occasionally feels lax. But the underlying social psychology, which comes into sharp focus when a white police officer (Stan Mayer) menacingly asserts his authority, is cogent to the point of harrowing.
After vividly establishing this dramatic world, “Scraps” abruptly shifts gears in the second act. Sebastian, Aisha’s fatherless son, bursts onto the scene to become the central figure in a ritual that moves with the unconscious fury of nightmare. Played by an adult actor (Damon Rutledge), Sebastian is taunted and prodded by figures (played by the excellent first-act cast members) who seem to be hellbent on teaching him what it means to be a black boy in America.
The two parts of Inoa’s play don’t coalesce stylistically, but they’re not meant to. The dramaturgical dissonance is symptomatic of a larger racial discordance. Narrative coherence implies progress, development, resolution. How do you advance a plot involving characters whose experiences keep reminding them that some things never change?
August Wilson succeeded by following the historical journey of African Americans in the 20th century. Inoa, a restive playwriting voice who shares the boundary-breaking boldness of her more established peers Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jackie Sibblies Drury, picks up the story with 21st century characters bright with promise who still find themselves trapped anachronistically in discriminatory loops.
In “Gunshot Medley: Part 1,” Daniel doesn’t have to explode conventional realism because she refuses to accept its terms. Her play revolves around a trio of African American characters whose gravestones in North Carolina reveal they died before the Civil War could liberate them from the cracks of history.
Existing in an earthly limbo designated as “The Hereafter,” Betty (Mildred Marie Langford) compulsively scrubs the floor as rambunctious Alvis (Derek Jackson) runs in and out excitedly with detritus (a Skittles wrapper, a toy gun) and treasure (modern music, freaky dance moves) from the future. When Betty tells him his commotion is going to wake the dead, he thinks she’s being silly, because they both know better than anyone that the dead don’t sleep.
George (Donathan Walters), who died 10 years before Betty and Alvis, returns after an absence that had Betty wondering if he had decided to stay dead for good. He’s been traveling through time, tapping into revolutionary currents while confronting new guises of old bigotry.
A High Priestess (a mellifluous Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield) sits on a high chair in a flowing red dress and hums and sings spirituals. She is referred to as the wind and represents, according to the program, “a New World echo” of the Yorba deity Oya. As a goddess of death and rebirth, she is a harbinger of change, luring George to see more than what has been revealed to him while Alvis scampers on his curious hunting expeditions and Betty tries to her keep own tragic story from destroying her soul.
This sharply staged American Saga revival (a collaboration between Rogue Machine, which presented the play last year, and Collaborative Artists Bloc) features three musicians (Garrett Lofgren on bass, Anna Mat on violin and Ann Polednak on banjo) who are visible in shadowy outline. The play’s geography is lyrically rendered through Terry’s visually captivating direction, though it takes a bit of time for the uninitiated to find their bearings in a theatrical world that at times seems uncertain of its own rules.
The use of repetition, demarcated by a gunshot that has Betty clutching her stomach before restarting her cleaning ritual, sets up its own dramatic hurdles. Daniel, a writer I first encountered when she was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, where I’ve been teaching playwriting and contemporary American drama, fills us in on the brutality the characters were subjected to and are still reeling from in the afterlife. But rather than developing these backstories, she leaps into the anguish of the contemporary moment by having Betty invoke the names of victims of recent police shootings along with other causalities of violent racism, past and present.
“Oh God, everyone’s somebody’s child,” Betty cries out as she mourns the myriad losses that resonate with her own. Langford’s emotionally searing performance is extraordinary to witness, though this 70-minute play rushes to a finish that doesn’t feel entirely earned, at least not by the end of this first part of what is an expected two-part work.
“Scraps” and “Gunshot Medley: Part 1” point in the direction in which their talented authors are heading in this spectacularly vibrant era in African American playwriting. If they haven’t yet arrived, the journey they’re on is urgent, challenging and definitely worth the ride.
‘Gunshot Medley: Part 1’
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