“Force Continuum” explores police brutality and community tensions through three generations of African-American cops

Written by on May 10, 2016 in Featured - No comments
Thaddeus Street plays the character Dray, a young painter who is shot by police when they think his paint brush is a gun. | Photo courtesy of the Cohesion Theatre Company

Thaddeus Street plays the character Dray, a young painter who is shot by police when they think his paint brush is a gun. | Photo courtesy of the Cohesion Theatre Company

Force continuum is a practice taught to law enforcement officers. It’s a hierarchy of the type and amount of force an officer can use to restrain suspects. Deadly force should be the last resort and used only when an officer has exhausted all their other options.

Through the headlines, protests, and outrage we’ve seen over the past few years, it appears as if that continuum has been broken. We see it in the cases of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and of course, Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, all citizens at the receiving end of the final step of the continuum.

“Force Continuum” is a play by Kia Corthron, directed by Rosiland Cauthen, and performed by  the Cohesion Theatre Company that focuses on the ripple effect these police-involved deaths have on the officers, the community, the families, and culture as a whole.

“Force Continuum”, written by Corthron in 2001 before these wide-spread and well-known cases, is about Dece, played expertly by Terrance Fleming. Dece is a 24-year-old rookie cop who comes from two generations of police officers. Dece is also black. As an African-American cop, he is smack-dab in the middle of both sides of this taut cultural tension and national debate where lives are literally on the line.

As the play progresses, we see Dece grappling with the two sides of who he is. He wants to do good, but the weight of his actions when a woman dies in his custody and the inherent discriminatory practices within the department has him wondering if he’s a “traitor to his race.”

“I found that one of the complexities of the story that really pulled me in is this young cop who is African-American. As a black person, you’re seeing how your own people are being treated but he also has a job to do,” said Cauthen.

The performance isn’t about good vs. evil. Such black-and-white thinking doesn’t translate into the corrupt system that inflicts pain on all rungs of society.  Dece is at the crossroads between two very complex and very troubled sides. The killer cops and the unarmed innocent victims in the news are more than just what appears in the headlines after a riot. The play shows off how interconnected these lives are by having every actor play both a cop and a civilian at one point of the show.

“I think it is in grappling with these tough issues and peeling back the layers and telling some truth about what’s really going on that we can start to get to the healing,” said Cauthen.

Flashbacks of Dece’s childhood are interspersed throughout the play, showing his wide-eyed idealism of police and his desire to take after his father, played by Malcolm Anomnachi, who is quickly rising in the ranks as an officer.

The first step of force continuum is verbal persuasion. The need for communication is a common theme throughout the play. When young Dece asks his grandfather, played by Josh Thomas, if he can be a cop, he responds, “Do you like people?”

Dece’s grandfather and mother were community-based officers. They knew everybody’s name and spoke to them with respect and humanity. That’s another theme of “Force Continuum”, the need for officers that are from the neighborhoods they are patrolling.

Cauthen directs the play in a way where the police aren’t set up as antagonists, but victims of a corrupt system, just as Dece and his other community members are.

For example, the performance tackles the high suicide rate of police officers and why this isn’t an issue that is often discussed.

“We’re keeping it all the family,” says the grandfather with a sigh.

Following the play, Cohesion would host talks with a variety of guest speakers to touch on the issues “Force Continuum” brought up.

Last week, two officers spoke about how the play touched on their experiences policing in such an intense and uncertain time.

“They talked about how they got goosebumps because it reminded them of certain things that happened to them.”

The first act of the play is rife with tension. Dece’s patrol is almost going too well and the audience is wound up tight, holding its breath and clenching its fists, waiting for the tragedy that will inevitably occur.

In the second act, things fall apart. The flashbacks take a grim tone as Dece’s once proud father crumbles as he is pressured to go along with his department’s unethical actions. When he is goaded into beating a 16-year-old to death, the bubble bursts.

“It deals with some very serious issues, with the police and the community and a lot of the things we see locally and nationally plays out. Even though it’s a tough subject matter, we think it’s an important subject matter,” said Cauthen.

Performed at United Evangelical Church, the set is simple, a living room scene or an empty bar, but large partitions decorated with collages of headlines and newspapers about police brutality break up the set and put the slice-of-life family scenes we see into the larger, more disturbing, narrative.

“It’s a tough play, y’all. We’ve been living with this play for two months. Seeing these images night after night, this language, and knowing that, for me, it’s a play, it’s fictional, but this is really happening to people. This type of harassment and brutality is for real.”

There’s a hushed silence from the audience as the play completes. Cauthen said that once the initial shock of the play’s events wears off, she wants the audience to continue the dialogue.

“It’s a discussion we need to have a group,” she said, calling for better communication and community involvement from residents, politicians,  and officers. “We can change it, in our personal lives, in the lives of our family, in the lives of our neighbors. We can help the situation in our ways.”

“Force Continuum” ran from April 22 to May 8.

By Gianna DeCarlo

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