There is a lot to admire in Kia Corthron's ambitious new play Force Continuum, and there is also a lot that one wishes had been more skillfully constructed and directed. This is material that might have benefited greatly from another workshop production before going public at The Atlantic Theater Company.
Sometimes, a lack of polish can be bracing--but not this time. The raw edges in Force Continuum only serve to confuse the audience and diminish the play's power. Still, this is an intriguing work that has a lot going for it. Individual scenes are, by turns, dramatically riveting, emotionally sophisticated, and politically complex. Add to the mix a strong cast and a standout performance by Ray Anthony Thomas, who plays several roles with dimension and depth.
Set in the urban underbelly, where Afro-American police officers are caught between fitting in with the tactics and attitudes of the largely white police force and the needs and expectations of their own communities, this is a play that grapples with important issues. It focuses on an Afro-American family that boasts three generations of cops; the story zeroes in on the unique sacrifices these people make, which go far beyond the considerable burdens that lay heavily upon white police officers. If Force Continuum were written and produced 10 or 20 years ago, it might have seemed a direct and straightforward work about institutionalized racism within The Force. The play touches on that subject--but times have changed, and there are plenty of Afro-American beat officers today. A lot of them are assigned to violent, drug-infested areas "because we fit in," snarls one policeman of color. The play sits on that edge where cops have to decide if they're really there to serve and protect or if they're part of an occupying army betraying their own people. It is to the author's credit that Force Continuum offers no easy answers, either to its characters or the audience.
The character that anchors the play is a racial pioneer, one of New York's early black policemen. Now retired, The Grandfather (David Fonteno) is a firm believer in having Afro-Americans working in their own neighborhoods, where they know the people and the people know them. That belief has come at a terrible cost: The grandfather's son, who also was a man in blue, took a bullet and died. Now his grandson (Chad L. Coleman) is a cop as well, working in plain clothes in the "Buy and Bust" squad; the young man is especially troubled by the crosscurrents of racism and resentment when he and his white partner roust anyone who's black.
Force Continuum moves back and forth in time, giving us glimpses of this family at different stages of their lives. We see the grandson as a boy, wondering if he has the courage to become a cop; we see the boy's father before his death and learn the harrowing circumstances of his demise. We also see the good that comes from a black cop patrolling his own neighborhood. Unfortunately, there are times when we're not sure what we're seeing, because the play's time shifts aren't presented in a manner that makes them clear. It doesn't help that most of the actors fill multiple roles and it isn't always immediately clear when they are switching identities. Director Michael John Garces should have done a better job of dealing with all of this; one way might have been to make better use of Kirk Bookman's lighting to give the time changes a more pronounced visual look. Also, the script might have more elegantly accommodated those time changes. Without giving away what happens in the dramatic conclusion, we should note that there is a credibility problem in the writing and the staging.
There is no problem, though, with the acting. Chad L. Coleman contributes a sensitive performance as the Afro-American cop caught in the middle. Sean Squire shows his versatility in a series of sharply defined characterizations that range from a drug dealer to a victim of police brutality. Chris McGarry captures the edgy uncertainty of a white cop's isolation on the beat in a black neighborhood. Jordan Lage is fierce as a brutal white cop who knows how to play the system. And Myra Lucretia Taylor defines several women with a genuine humanity.
If Kia Corthron's ambition outstrips her craft here, it isn't by far. She is a young talent very much worth watching--right now, and in the future.