Reviewed by Robert Soza
Sunday, March 4 2001, 1:53 PM
Force Continuum, a play by Kia Corthron, is a story of an African-American family living in New York City. What sets this apart from Good Times and The Cosby Show is its overt interest in the racial politics of being African-American in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Adding to the political interests of the play, the family consists of three generations of law enforcement agents. The Grandfather, played by David Fonteno, represents the first generation -- he's a member of the Housing Authority with a commitment to community policing. He knows the folks in his buildings; their names, children's names and the general state of their lives. The grandfather represents an ideal that quickly breaks down in next generations inherited roles as cops.
The Father, Ray Anthony Thomas, is the first family member in the NYPD. Unlike his father, he is unable to keep the commitment to community policing -- under pressure from his all white co-workers he opts to participate in the beating of a 16 year-old, African-American male; the beating results in the death of the suspect and the details of the death remain hidden behind the veil of police camaraderie. The father eventually kills himself because of the shame he feels at not having the dignity to resist the racialized misconduct of his peers. The mother, Myra Lucretia Taylor, starts off her career as a trainee of the grandfather in the Housing Authorityever, her career is cut short by her death from cancer.
The third generation, Dece, played by Chad L. Coleman, comes to policing through the myriad of experiences of his family. He possess an awareness of the potential for good that an African-American officer can have in the community as well as the pressures of working under the pressure of the racialized assumptions behind who is a criminal and who is not. Dece both trusts this potential but understands his place as outsider in a structure that systemically abuses his community of origin. Dece's partner, Flip (Chris McGarry), is the voice of the white police officer. He laments the mistrust that exists within African-American communities: DWB, harassment, and the looming assumption that every black man is a criminal. Flip professes to care, but manifests all the subtle racisms intertwined with the privilege of whiteness in the United States, consistently violating the proscribed "force continuum" of his training, moving to the use of deadly force at the first sign of resistance.
The mix of structural problems and personal dilemmas create an overpowering script that speaks to social questions central to our times: Diallo, Mumia, King, Rampart, and so on. These names ring our nation's communal memory as stigmas of state violence against people of color in America. However, Corthron, rather than batter her audience with anti-state polemics locates these questions in the hearts and minds of individuals entangled in social problems so much bigger than themselves. Flip does not consciously want to hurt any particular African-American; his awareness of the African-American community's mistrust and resentment for his part in the state's oppressive practices is not lost on him and creates a sense of unease that renders him easily provoked. His own internalized racism ultimately leads to his own undoing and death. Dece, similarly, is unable to find his niche in the force. He is keenly aware that his assignment to buy drugs off the street stems from his easy "fit" in his own community. It is this easy fit that results in his unwitting murder by another police officer near the end of the play.
Corthron's play ends like a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage littered with corpses and little room for hope. Thus, at least today, her social commentary gives voice to the pessimism of the disempowered. How true is the rhetoric of freedom when a man can be shot over forty times reaching for his wallet and the perpetrators walk away? Only if the killer is a cop and the victim not white.
Force Continuum is currently being shown by New York City's Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street