To the African-American residents of a South Philadelphia neighborhood in Company One Theatre’s world premiere of Josh Wilder’s “Leftovers,’’ hope is the thing with petals.
A giant dandelion, to be precise. After it erupts from the pavement next to the row house inhabited by teenagers Jalil and Kwamaine and their mother, Raquelle, they start making wishes upon the florets that periodically drift down like oversize snowflakes. Why not? In this strange new reality, it might just be possible for certain dreams — most of them small, one of them life-transforming — to come true.
However, the family is also forced to confront a bleaker revelation that shatters the mystique surrounding a cultural hero: Bill Cosby. To a degree I’ve not seen elsewhere, playwright Wilder dramatizes what “The Cosby Show’’ meant to black Americans, illuminating the show’s potency with enough specificity that its centrality to “Leftovers’’ seems like more than a gimmick. Wilder measures the gulf between Cosby and Dr. Cliff Huxtable, the idealized father he played on “The Cosby Show,’’ and calibrates the anguish that was caused among African-Americans by Cosby’s downfall amid a blizzard of sexual-abuse accusations.
As this partial summary may suggest, there’s a lot going on in Wilder’s play, making it feel like an unwieldy work at times. The mashup of elements and devices from fairy tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk,’’ kitchen-sink drama, and magical realism leads to some narrative hiccups and ragged edges.
But “Leftovers,’’ which was developed through Company One Theatre’s C1 PlayLab and is directed at the Strand Theatre by Summer L. Williams, nonetheless registers as an inventive and emotionally involving experience. Wilder’s play provides a solid exclamation point to a Company One season that — with earlier productions of Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: a break beat play’’ and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Wig Out!’’ (directed by Williams) — has focused on what director of new work Ilana M. Brownstein calls “the depth and variety of the black male experience in America.’’
“Leftovers’’ first pulls us in and gets us invested with an early scene in which a large dandelion floret floats down to 15-year-old Kwamaine (Christian Scales) and he impulsively makes a wish on it. Up till then, it doesn’t seem as if Kwamaine dares to wish for much more than blue soda instead of red, which he views as ordinary — a touching attempt to carve out a bit of individual identity.
The stress of barely making ends meet is clearly taking its toll on mother Raquelle (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), who buys a couple bucks worth of lottery tickets each day, hoping for a jackpot. Cox is richly expressive in a challenging role, navigating the contradictions of a character who veers from gruffness to solicitude in her relationship with her sons, and who harbors her own dreams, exemplified by the black dress she is painstakingly sewing.
Eighteen-year-old Jalil (Kadahj Bennett) is furious that their absentee father, a truck driver named Chris (Colgan B. Johnson), did not show up at his high school graduation ceremony. “Dads leave. That’s what they do,’’ Jalil’s friend Dijon (Irvin Scott) tells him dismissively, though Dijon is more vulnerable than he lets on. Jalil is considering joining the military as a means of escape, Raquelle is angry that she got suspended from her $12-an-hour job, and the family seems in jeopardy of coming apart at the seams.
Against that backdrop, Kwamaine makes a fervent wish: “I want us all together for one day. Happy. ‘Cosby Show’ happy. . . No lies. I hate liars. Cliff Huxtable never lied.’’
Kwamaine gets a chance to test that proposition when Huxtable himself eventually materializes in “Leftovers,’’ played by Marc Pierre with a deft grasp of Cosby’s mannerisms and vocal inflections (and taste in sweaters). To reveal much more would spoil the play’s second act, but suffice it to say that in an audacious bid to reveal Kwamaine and Jalil’s deepest fears and hopes, “Leftovers’’ gets both real and surreal.
The always compelling Bennett, who memorably starred in “Hype Man,’’ endows Jalil with an intense, jittery mixture of self-doubt, restless yearning for a bigger life, and determination to achieve it. He is ably complemented by Scales, a rising senior at Boston University, whose portrait of hopeful young Kwamaine is affecting enough to make you root for him — and to hope that Kwamaine eventually learns that while “ ‘Cosby Show’ happy” might not be attainable, real-world happy is.
Play by Josh Wilder
Directed by Summer L. Williams
Presented by Company One Theatre. At Strand Theatre, Dorchester. Through Aug. 18. Tickets are “Pay-what-you-wish.’’ www.companyone.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.