Teleplays to Plays: Palisadean Joseph Stern Fights for 'Scraps'
by Michael Aushenker, Contributing Writer
As a television producer, Palisadian Joseph Stern’s credits have included some of the most critically acclaimed and widely viewed dramatic series ever to air on network television: “Cagney & Lacey,” “Law & Order” and “Judging Amy,” among them.
“There’s a pretty good lineage here,” he told the Palisadian-Post.
Now, Stern has segued from the small screen to the stage.
“Ten years ago, I began to do plays about race,” Stern said. Six, to be exact, and his newest, “Scraps,” a play by Geraldine Inoa, launched July 6 at Matrix Theatre in West Hollywood.
Directed by Steve Walker-Webb and set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood three months after the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer, “Scraps” bills itself as “a frequently funny, provocative mash up of poetry, realism and expressionism that chronicles the effects of his death on his family and friends.”
Inoa, a 28-year-old breakout writer who works on “The Walking Dead,” is credited and co-credited for such season nine episodes as “The Obliged” and “The Calm Before.”
Stern, 78, grew up a short walk away from the Melrose Avenue playhouse he’s currently affiliated with in West Hollywood at a time when Fairfax High School was predominantly white and Jewish.
Today’s Los Angeles (Fairfax High included) is dramatically different—and like some of the dated, if iconic, plays, Stern has made a point to change things up to reflect today’s America.
With a production of “All My Sons,” the 1947 Arthur Miller classic, Stern took liberties with casting, filling the main roles with African American actors and side roles with Asian Americans and other thespians.
The idea being to switch up the context and amplify the commentary, in addition to giving juicy acting opportunities to actors who might otherwise be overlooked for such classic material.
“They bring an authenticity to the culture,” he said.
“When I did ‘All My Sons,’ I had been looking for something to do that was multi-ethnic,” he continued. “I didn’t change a lot of the dialogue. I had specific ideas for each part.”
The production worked, and Stern received missives from black attendees who had seen his play along the line of, “It’s the first time I felt included.”
With 2016’s “Mountain Top,” Stern pushed the needle further and most recently, “Neighbors” received multiple BackStage awards and was nominated for four Ovations, including Best Play. The piece also enjoyed a successful run at the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis.
In general, the process of mounting a play at the Matrix takes about six months, according to Stern, from the casting process to the two-month rehearsal period, and Stern likes to challenge himself with heady material.
And yet, Stern said, his plays do not proselytize or tell the viewer what or how to think.
A tradition going back to past television work was dealing with social issues even back in the 1980s and 1990s. Stern said such dramas were of their time and, in some ways, ahead of their time.
“We did shows about AIDS and abortion,” Stern recalled of the Emmy-winning “Cagney & Lacey” and the Dick Wolf production “Law & Order.”
“It was innovative and it was before hand-held [camera] shows were common, before ‘Homicide,’” he said.
So why does race still matter for Stern after all these years, even as he focuses on the theater?
“I did this as a healing,” he said. “My family was color-blind. My granddaughter is bi-racial.”
And Pacific Palisades is a town in which Stern continues to find solace and inspiration for his work.
Stern credits his late wife, Peppy Stern, who died of multiple myloloma in 2002, for moving him to the Palisades, where Peppy was very involved at Kehillat Israel congregation, and kick-starting his relationship with Matrix Theatre.
During Peppy’s tenure, Stern tapped his “Cagney & Lacey” colleague, actress Tyne Daly, to do a production of “A Woman of Valor” at the Matrix in 1993. The Kehillat Israel fundraiser amassed $100,000 for the temple.
And Stern still lives in the same house they moved into over 25 years ago.
“What I love is that I feel like I’m in Nantucket,” Stern said of his Palisades neighborhood. “Yet I’m still in LA.”
LOS ANGELES TIMES
A new vibrant era in African American playwriting seen in
Geraldine Inoa and Dionna M. Daniel’s latest
by Charles McNulty,
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
“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.”
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
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
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
“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.