Eclipse Presents Dramatic Declarations
Kia Corthron is a writer who prides herself on passing along information to the audience that she hopes they will find useful. That’s certainly the case with the New York-based playwright’s 2001 drama, Force Continuum, which depicts the lives of a black police family in the pre-9-11 Giuliani era. The characters, whether black or white, cop or civilian, regularly speak in statistics and axioms as they mull over the complexities and difficulties of their daily lives. They also constantly encounter or cause senseless violence to which they have mostly resigned themselves.
The Pervasiveness of Racial Tension
Dece, our central character, is first seen being stopped and handcuffed for no reason while out at night as a way of coping with insomnia. (He is usually played by Maurice Demus, but at the performance I attended, Sam Campbell III made an enviable theatrical debut). We next see him as a young police officer driving on patrol with his white partner, Flip, played by Anthony Venturini. Flip lives in the suburbs and can’t stand coming into the city to do a job controlled by political horse-trading for the benefit of people who see him as the lackey of racist tyrants. And he acknowledges they have good reason not to like him, though he thinks the War on Drugs should be expanded to middle-class white people instead of abolished. Dece is more prone to stewing than venting. He was raised by cops to not trust cops but became one anyway for reasons he has difficulty explaining, or perhaps, admitting.
Meanwhile, an incredibly unlucky family consisting of watercolor paint set-hawker Dray (Tyshaun Lang) and 4th grade teacher Mrai (Lanora Terraé Hayden) while away their time until their fateful police encounters. They struggle with poverty, ignored until they become headlines. After what he helps do to Mrai, Dece searches for answers from his wizened grandfather (Lionel Gentle), an ambitious young up-and-coming female police officer, and the deeply unethical union, but finds nothing satisfactory.
Force Continuum Difficult to Implement
Michael Aaron Pogue has a difficult job in his debut as a director trying to get all this ruminating to lead somewhere. It doesn’t help that the Athenaeum studios are always tough on talky plays, particularly ones that require a lot of movement. Gentle brings real tears to his character’s lament at how disconnected from the community police have become, but Dece points out how disingenuous it is to claim New York police in the 60s were on friendly terms with poor minorities. The titular force continuum is a departmental standard about when to escalate violence which is obviously unworkable, therefore not really enforced, and therefore easily abused. We see an attempt at community-based policing fall to pieces the instant the police encounter some unstable people, which they do multiple times every day. And yet, these scenes are more like a college than a story despite being centered on an annoyingly irresolute character in a manner that stretches credulity.
Seasons Designed for Layering Nuance
It must be remembered when judging Corthron’s work that, although the play remains topical, the terms of its discussion were not so well-worn into the public consciousness in February of 2001. The War on Drugs and War on Crime were still popular among African-Americans and The New Jim Crow was nearly a decade from publication. Does that mean the play still has value today? Yes, as a reminder of how the current policing situation developed, that good policing requires good people to want to be police officers, and the difficulty of implementing strategies for keeping the most at-risk people safe. With its seasons themed around a playwright, Eclipse, more than other theatres, tends to produce plays that work as parts of a whole. Their next production will be a world premiere, and it will be interesting to see how Corthron’s writing accounts for cultural shifts between Force Continuum and now.
Thru May 21
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 2:00 pm
Athenaeum Studio 3
2936 N Southport Ave
About the Author
Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.