Director Rosiland Cauthen introduces Cohesion Theatre's production of "Force Continuum" with a projected video montage of cell phone and surveillance footage capturing police brutality incidents, starting with the traffic stop arrest of Sandra Bland just days before she was found dead in her jail cell. From there we see the body of Mike Brown, the choking of Eric Garner, the shooting of Tamir Rice, the slapping of a student at the Reach School in Baltimore by a school officer earlier this year. There must be at least a dozen more videos; I lose count. Many of the victims' names I know; others I don't recognize. They're all black. For some reason, we never see the video of Freddie Gray's arrest on April 12, 2015—or maybe I just missed it in the overwhelming bombardment.
After that, the play is just slightly easier to swallow. By that I mean, if you can take an onslaught of some of the most horrifying imagery this country has to offer, you might be able to handle the rest. "Force Continuum" doesn't get harder, but don't expect anything much gentler. The montage reinforces the sense of the epidemic's severity, especially when you remember, painfully, that these are only the instances caught on video. And most if not all occurred after "Force Continuum" premiered in 2001.
Cauthen ensures that we're as angry as we possibly can be—toward cops—before the play even really begins, and the projections continue to play silently at various moments throughout the production. But Kia Corthron's play doesn't let that anger go unchecked; this isn't an opportunity to rage against racist cops. We see glimpses into the lives of a brutalized black family, the homeless, drug dealers; but the story revolves around three generations of one police force family. After seeing a series of seemingly inhuman monstrosities, we're forced to reckon with the fact that those cops are people, and many of them are black like their victims—obvious, yes, but often just too unsettling and confusing to consider when we're shaking our fists at an institution that's constantly exposing its own racism.
To that end, "Force Continuum" does not even begin to excuse police violence. We do see an altercation between a black mother (played by Mari Andrea) and two male cops (Terrance Fleming as the central character Dece and Bobby Henneberg as his white partner) that begins with good intentions and ends with her death, through simple but devastating mistakes made as the result of split-second decision-making that occurs during such incidents. Isolated, that scene might be read as apologetic and police-sympathizing, but it's surrounded by images of discriminatory hatred, and not just in the projections playing behind scenic designer Casey Dutt's set pieces, which are plastered with relevant newspaper clippings and headlines. It's not about good cops and bad cops, just complicated cops—complicated not only by the discriminatory system they're a part of, but the discriminatory society in which they exist, and its convergence with their own identities. In another scene, an ambitious black policewoman (also played by Andrea) tells her partner Dece (Fleming) about her sister-in-law asking her if the police force is indeed racist or sexist.
"Is society racist? Sexist?" she says to Dece. "Problem is with cops the societal attitude gets codified: life and death. But just don't say we some isolated entity plastic bubble vacuum: We are what society makes."
All around, the cast is the production's driving force. As Dece's grandfather, a former housing officer, Josh Thomas deftly carries the weight of a tired soul, no longer tortured so much as reluctantly accepting of the world's injustices. In an unnecessary but nonetheless impressive musical addition to Corthron's script, Andrea and Christian Harris (who plays Dece's mother, among other roles) top off their strong acting with astounding dance and vocal performances, respectively. Fleming captures his rookie cop character's conflicting sense of idealism for his job (as a child, Dece decided to continue his parent' line of work so he could ride horseback through Times Square—a dream we never see him achieve) and deeply uncomfortable awareness of the institution's faults. As Dray, a young black man who suffers one tragedy after another at the hands of police, Thaddeus Street makes visible the silent agony of experiencing loss and feeling the world turned against you.
The story is nearly as difficult to follow as it is to watch. Despite the strong cast, the script moves too quickly and lacks the cues to make the split roles coherent—so it's easy to miss the fact that one actor is now playing a different role, or the same character at a different point in time. For a play with so many characters, this proves to be a problem. By the time intermission comes around, I find that it makes more sense to accept the play as a series of somewhat interrelated vignettes, jumping back and forth from the nineties, when Dece, the third-generation cop, is trying to find his bearings, back to the time of his parents and grandfather.
The dialogue, too, is knotty and quick-paced. This, on the other hand, seems appropriate in dealing with such impenetrable subject matter. Corthron—a Maryland native who wrote for "The Wire"—imagines police violence through the minds of frustrated cops, and, needless to say, there's little clarity there. But the cast handles the language like it's of their own mind. A crushing monologue delivered by Dece's father (Malcolm Anomnachi) following his participation in the fatal beating of a black boy offers a look into his motivations—a look, but no answers. Still reeling from the adrenaline, he traces his steps, his thoughts, swinging at the air, trying to make sense of his senseless rage: he sees no reward to his work; only the racism of his fellow squad members and the label of "traitor" bestowed on him by the black community.
"Am I a part of the team? This time…They thought I wouldn't do it, join in dumb punk, perp dumb kid. Why he gotta have such a smart mouth? What his mama teach him I kick him!"
The whole play has that kind of stormy, stream-of-consciousness texture to it. Conversations between Dece and his grandfather reveal the moral complexities of being black men on the police force. Later, Dece ponders the lack of dialogue surrounding the high suicide rate of police ("Nobody wanna air their dirty laundry I guess. Keep it in the family"). Early in the play, we see two white cops harassing a young Dece, wrongfully assuming his parents to be neglecting their child (they're dead): "They care more 'bout their cars than their kids"—hearing this, I'm reminded of Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis' judgmental tone when discussing the mother of the 14-year-old boy shot by police just last week, and the larger, pervading sense of disapproval the white world holds against parents of black children. Corthron and her characters begin to reach for solid answers to the issues of racism and violence and come up instead with rapid meditations on identity compromised by a narrow world. There's no minute to rest, only the responsibility to recognize the complexity and pain of all people—the oppressors and the oppressed, and those who find themselves to be both.
Come for the brilliant performances, stay for the anguish.