Kia Corthron’s play, “Force Continuum,” takes its title from the term that describes the standard guidelines provided to law enforcement officials about how much force may be used against a person or persons in a given situation, ranging from brute physical strength to batons, pepper spray, TASERS, guns and all the rest.
When: Through May 21
Where: Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum TheatreTheater, 2936 N. Southport
Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
As anyone who has watched the videotapes of the many recent events involving police officers and their encounters with a wide array of subjects can tell you, these guidelines (combined with the rush of adrenalin on all sides) are, to put it mildly, an imperfect rulebook, and outcomes of actions taken by both suspected criminal and cop can be deeply disturbing as well as open to a wide range of interpretation. More often than not, no one emerges unscathed. And when matters of race enter into the situation, things can quickly become even more incendiary.
All this is grist for the mill in Corthron’s play, the opening salvo in Eclipse Theatre’s three-play 2017 season devoted to the work of the African-American playwright and activist who grew up in Maryland, lives in Harlem, and has had her plays produced at theaters throughout the U.S. and beyond.
To be sure, “Force Continuum” could not be more provocative or timely, although the fact that it debuted in New York 16 years ago (before the use of body cams and the ubiquitous mobile phone videos), sadly suggests everything old is new again. The problem here is that Corthron’s play is often confusing in terms of time frame and relationships. And at least as realized in this Eclipse Theatre production (the first directorial effort of the excellent actor Michael Aaron Pogue), a number of the story lines remain more than a little muddied. In addition, while the actors are full of intensity and passion, their speech can sometimes be frustratingly lacking in clarity.
At the heart of the action is the ever ambivalent Dece (Maurice Demus, who allows us to know what he is thinking and feeling even when he is restraining himself from speaking or taking action). A young black cop, he is following in the footsteps of his late parents and grandfather, who also served as part of the NYPD. And the lessons he learns in a series of all-too-familiar incidents that play out in the largely black neighborhoods to which he is assigned can be summed up as: Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but either way you will end up feeling alternately impotent or guilty. To some degree this is a sentiment shared by the predominantly white cops on the force with whom he works, although Dece’s sense of being a traitor to his race is ever-present, and can result in paralysis on one hand, and at least in one case, over-reaction.
The play unfolds in a series of loosely related scenes, each capturing either an aspect of personal life or events on the street. Early on we see Dece riding in a patrol car with his white partner, a husband and father with a short fuse who is sharply played by Anthony Venturini. Later the two will be questioned about using excessive force in a particular incident and are “tutored” by a higher up about keeping their stories straight before an official hearing. Eventually the two will make a traffic stop with a woman we already know as Mrai (LaNora Terrae Hayden) — a struggling single mother with a serious asthma condition. And when she is aggressively questioned, and begins to panic and fight back, things get out of control. An arrest for a suspected drug deal also is handled with maximum force.
In another scene we see Dece sharing lunch with a young black female cop who is confident she will rise to captain, while Dece already seems beaten down on the job and skeptical about his future prospects. We watch, too, as a public housing police officer familiar with those on his beat deals generously with a young thief, and how a conflict between a homeless man and woman escalates, but is at least temporarily defused.
The rest of the cast, including Lionel Gentle, Diana Coates, Joe McCauley, Richard Hatcher, Terence Sims and Tyshaun Lang give their all. Eclipse deserves credit for reviving this flawed play which is bound to leave you with the depressing sense that for all the talk about law enforcement, crime and improved training, nothing much has changed.