Black and Blue

The 39-year-old black playwright Kia Corthron will see three of her plays produced this season. The first is Force Continuum at the Atlantic Theater Company, the house that Mamet helped build. It is a sprawling work, confusing in the current production, and not entirely clarified even by perusal of the text. But there is something there worth rescuing from its present perpetrators.

This drama about three generations of black policemen and -women has a large cast, and features scenes of cops in their cars stopping suspects in their vehicles – in one case dragged out of the car kicking and screaming – that would go over much better on film or television. It is one thing to mime a car trip in a fantasy by Thornton Wilder and quite another to feature patrol cars cruising mean streets in a realistic drama. And what of several apartments in not much less mean housing developments, plus a police station, all to be squeezed – in this production at any rate – onto a single inflexible and unimaginative set by Alexander Dodge?

The playwright herself is to blame for stating in a note that the 29 characters can be played by nine actors. I doubt whether they can under any circumstances, but certainly not when the nine are mediocre or worse. Most infelicitously, Jordan Lage, who can be a problem even in one part, is made to play seven. But the biggest culprit here is the director, Michael John Garcés, who clearly cannot cope with any of these challenges.

There are some small but immediate indications of authorial and directorial fallibility. Why does Miss Corthron describe her protagonist’s laugh as a “snicker sans the nastiness”? How does that differ from one without the nastiness? Or doth she think this is an Elizabethan drama? And how many cold pills would it take to leave a driver too befuddled to plead for her life when confronted with the police?

As for the direction, an asthma attack is shown getting instant relief from a pink inhalator. This could only be Vanceril, a long-range drug that plainly proclaims its uselessness in an emergency. The framed photographs of various family members in police uniform are hung way above a high door, good for an audience, preposterous for a family.

The author’s awkwardness (which is not to be equated with lack of talent) registers more seriously in her unwillingness to clarify time shifts. She and her director fail to convey perspicuously which generations of the Becker family – black members, male or female, of either the NYPD or the housing police – are on view, a difficulty compounded by David Fonteno, who plays the grandfather with exactly the same looks, bearing, and clothes in scenes a good many years apart.

Miss Corthron, who lives in Harlem, does know about police work and procedure. She also knows the language of her characters and renders it persuasively, except for a few rather too big words that stick out from their context. She is also good at evoking the relationship between black and white cops, and between both of them and black perpetrators. But though she is enterprising enough to paint on a large canvas, she does not quite succeed in making us care about her characters with the necessary few bold strokes.

Other things, too, make me wonder. Are two cop suicides too much for one play? Do topical allusions to recent New York cases of real or alleged police brutality have an enlarging or narrowing effect? Are the off-putting titles Miss Corthron favors (e.g., Seeking the Genesis; Life by Asphyxiation; The Venus de Milo Is Armed; Splash Hatch on the E Going Down; Breath, Boom; and Force Continuum) a help or a hindrance? I do, in any case, wish her a director who does not transform a gripping scene in which a cop is taught how to lie under oath into a boring one.

Force Continuum
By Kia Corthron; directed by Michael John Carces at the Atlantic Theater.

Black and Blue