|Rhonnie Washington with Drew Reginald Watkins & Douglas B. Giorgis|
Scapegoat is under attack from all sides. The black super hero in green tights was once the pioneering, main star for Blam Comics, making his creator, Clive, a real live hero for graphically describing in exciting action drawings the African American experience. But years of declining readership and sales means Scapegoat may be on the corporate chopping block. Even the mid-life Clive’s twenty-something friend, Dwayne, admits in no uncertain terms, “The brothers don’t want to read about an Uncle Tom super hero.”
Bowing to his agent’s prodding (who is also his ex-wife, Lexy), Clive decides to kill off Scapegoat in one last comic issue; but just as he makes that decision, Dwayne is gunned down by a white cop who does not not like his looks or his hanging out in a mostly white neighborhood. That leads to the final issue becoming Killer Kop versus Scapegoat, with Scapegoat finally succumbing to white hate. And with that publication, sales soar; and riots break out in three U.S. cities.
|Douglas B. Giorgis & Drew Reginald Watkins|
And so sets up William Bivins’ world premiere play, Scapegoat, now part of Playground’s Festival of New Works, produced in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. The eighty-minute work weaves a number of story and thematic threads into its many, short scenes. The current wave of young, black men being the targets too often of police (usually white) is the central heartbeat of the fast-paced piece. Onto that throbbing strand the playwright adds a man’s haunting self-doubts and warring inner conflicts as he struggles to make sense of his life; his tension-packed relationship with his aging, white mother (a once Civil Rights activist); and the legacy he carries for a Civil Rights lawyer father who abandoned the mother and young son. To all that, he also includes cameo glimpses of Clive’s in-progress graphic History of Racism (Hello, Thomas Jefferson) while at the same time he pens a story line of Clive and Lexy suddenly finding a new spark in a love relationship that had been supposedly extinguished. And throughout, his two comic arch enemies, Scapegoat and Noon Day Demon, periodically appear to make their cases for the internal battles going on in Clive’s head about his own worth and existence.
For a play not quite reaching one-and-a-half-hours, that is a script that could fill several comic books with its intertwined stories; but somehow director Norman Gee has figured out how to keep the various undercurrents moving ahead without losing overall focus. In the end, this is a story about one African American man’s war with himself to figure out his destined and proper role in carrying on his parent’s Civil Rights fights against the inbred racial injustice of America. At the same time, Clive is carrying some deep, dark wound that has festered his entire life but has yet to reveal its source. Against his own struggles as a celebrated, black graphic artist, past and current injustices of African Americans – men, in particular – continue to intercede.
|Patricia Silver & Rhonnie Washington|
Rhonnie Washington carries in his expressive array of countenances a lifetime of Clive’s ups and downs, with his ability in the same facial expressions to juxtaposition one moment’s joy of delighting his wheel-chair-bound mom with the next of being at the edge of a meltdown as the two thunder oft-repeated insults at each other. His Clive retreats to the bottle of Jack Daniels when his life’s troubles and pressures get too much, but his Clive also visibly embodies a driving, inner resolution to fight creeping self-blame and depression. When the anger of injustices that he has largely let flow onto comic drawings finally erupt, his fiery brand lets loose all that Clive has largely held inside for many years.
|Rhonnie Washington & Douglas B. Giorgis|
The wars within his own head are played out by the appearances of the hero Scapegoat (Drew Reginald Watkins) and the anti-hero, Noon Day Demon (Douglas B. Giorgis). While posing in save-the-world, strong-arm stances in front of comic-book frames (part of Andy Falkner’s projection design) Scapegoat prods and pleas with Clive to keep his comic-book self alive and to continue fighting racial injustice through Scapegoat’s heroics. But jumping in to counter with his overly loud, sandpaper voice is the black-clad Noon Day, pushing Clive with bombastic bounces all around the room to listen to his own dark and doubting side. “What are you waiting for? It would be so quick and easy,” he snarls with gritted grin as a shaky Clive holds a gun to his head. Each of the comic book characters come to life often on the verge of being bizarre and too ridiculous, but each pulls back just in time to let Clive’s inner war play itself out in a manner that is both funny and powerful.
The good guy/bad guy pairing of the two actors is mirrored in the two actors’ individual depictions of the shooting victim, Dwayne (Mr. Watkins) and the enraged, trigger-happy cop, Marty (Mr. Giorgis). The latter is called upon by the playwright’s script to show another side of a sorrowful Marty (now charged with deadly assault) and to test our and Clive’s capability of showing some empathy for the cop’s situation. His attempt at some redemption/understanding through the created frames of Clive lead to a resurrection of sorts that is a somewhat strange and not totally effective strand of the overall story.
|Cathleen Ridley & Rhonnie Washington|
Rounding out the cast of five (all who play multiple roles except for Mr. Washington as Clive) are Cathleen Riddley as Clive’s combined ex-wife and current agent, Lexy, and Patricia Silver as his ancient-aged mother. Both are strong and convincing in their primary and back-up roles; and neither easily backs down from pushing Clive to get what she wants from him, each knowing what she wants and usually how to press Clive’s buttons to get it.
Rene Walker has created her costumes with some imaginative tongue-in-cheek when robing the comic book guys and the historical cameos. At the same time, her designs for all the other characters leave appropriate impressions about their personalities. Mikiko Uesugi’s overall simple and sparse scenic design enables the play’s various scenes to unfold quickly while Brittany Mellerson’s lit colors against the white back wall play into both a comic book’s coming to life as well as the shifts in mood in the story itself. A big added bonus of the evening is the sound design by James Goode, with a fabulously effective soundtrack of bluesy jazz where the interplay of sax, drums, and piano provides an ongoing reflection of our African-American history.
As with many world premieres, there is probably some more script work and honing of story and thematic threads before its next outing; but in the meantime, William Bivins’ Scapegoat is an impacting, important inclusion in this year’s Playgound New Works Festival and one that is ninety-minutes well spent.
Rating: 3.5 E
Scapegoat continues through June 17, 2018 in production by Playground and in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://playground-sf.org/ or at http://potrerostage.org.
Photo Credits: Mellophoto.com