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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
In interviews done in conjunction with his The Play About the Baby, Albee insisted that he did not write this or any other play with an agenda. As he put it in one interview, "I write a play to find out why I'm writing it."
Corthron, on the other hand, is an admittedly issues oriented playwright who builds her plays on a specific subject foundation. In the 30s and 40s she might have been categorized as an agit-prop playwright though she rejects that label as ineffective for getting her points across to audiences. Nevertheless, in an interview she recently did with Don Shewey in The New York Times she stated that "every play of mine starts from a socio political issue."
That brings us to Force Continuum which began with her interest in the situation of police brutality in New York, stimulated by the high profile Louima and Diallo cases. These names remain high profile. A statement by City Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi that "the majority of police officers are decent, caring people" brought jeers in the midst of a prayer vigil to mark the second anniversary of the Diallo shooting. On the other hand, another prominent newspaper article reported on a recent poll that found a drop in disapproval of police effectiveness by Blacks and Hispanics.
Without a doubt, Corthron has trained her playwright's lens on an issue that will make her play relevant theater for some time to come. From a dramaturgical point of view she has also made a good choice in telling her story as the saga of three generations of African-American police officers: The first generation, a retired housing cop, his son and daughter-in-law, and Dece, the young rookie cop whom he raised after his parents died (the father a suicide, the mother a cancer victim).
Moving between past and present, Corthron's play is stuffed with detail Director John Garcés gets some fine performances from the cast of nine , some in multiple roles.
Chad Coleman stands out as the frustrated rookie with a white partner. As his father wanted to rise from traffic cop to detective, Dece's urge to carry on the family legacy was born when he was a kid and saw a riot control police unit g at a big crowd event. "The fifteen whites all on horseback. The fifteen black in riot gear, on foot, below the whites."
David Fonteno, as Dece's grandfather, has little opportunity to come alive since Corthron uses him as her philosophical mouthpiece. While she doesn't soft-pedal police brutality, the grandfather is the voice of reason and hope for avoiding the miscommunication between policemen and their community. (The methods he used as a housing cop, are precursors of current efforts to not just bring minority policeman into the community, but to get to know the people who are part of it -- patrolling the streets on foot instead of in cars).
Also topnotch are the play's two white cops. Chris McGarry is Dece's talkative partner Flip. Jordan Lage plays Hudson a cynical representative of the Benevolent Association. He is superb in a scene, right after the intermission, when he coaches Flip and Dece for their testimony against charges of violence against the sister of another victim of trigger-happy police work. This chilling interchange represents the play's dramatic high spot.
Caroline S. Clay does good work as the asthmatic grade school teacher Mrai (and several others), as does Sean Squire as her brother Dray. However, like Fonteno, they are stuck with roles that exemplify Corthron's tendency to create characters who can give voice to her issues, at the expense of being real people.
All the characters reflect Corthron's originality and honesty as a writer and her ability to capture the nuances of urban speech. The play has an interesting to watch cinematic structure though the constant jumps between past and present, and various plot elements, can be distancing and confusing. That occasional sense of disorientation also applies to the use made of Alexander Dodge's realistic two-story set. It looks as if it were the Becker home (the black police family), yet the upstairs space is also used to introduce us to Mrai and her brother. By contrast, the way lighting designer Kirk Bookman casts the main set into darkness during the various stage front street scenes works well.
At its worst, Force Continuum is a derivative and preachy dramatization of real events, with characters that even good actors can't turn into real people. At its best, the play, like Ms. Corthron's previous work, looks squarely and fairly at uncomfortable problems and engages the audience's emotions sufficiently to abet intelligent post theater discussions.
Seeking the Genesis
a Splash Hatch on the E Train Going Down (both in DC).