Aurora Theatre Company
Following the police-afflicted, brutal murder of George Floyd in May 2020, protests erupted world-wide, including in Berkeley, California where shocked, angry UC students joined local residents in the streets, facing off against aggressive police in riot gear. Oakland resident, Berkeley City College professor, and prolific playwright Cleavon Smith has taken one such night of riots where the police suddenly surround and injure one Black, UC student and has created a tension-filled, thought-provoking, bias-challenging play entitled The Incrementalist, now in a world premiere at Aurora Theatre Company.
With a stellar cast of four – each of whom has repeatedly graced Bay Area stages in award-worthy roles – and under the tight, edgy, and yet full-of-heart direction of Oakland’s Dawn Monique Williams, The Incrementalist poses timely questions without easy answers about how much to push the envelope for needed, long-overdue, societal change. Evolution or revolution? Negotiation and compromise or demands with no backing down? Dialogue with ‘the enemy’ or boycott any participation? And what if the ‘enemy’ is Black like you, clearly a life-long liberal, and the female Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at your university?
As Dr. Nina Bechet (Cathleen Riddley) sits at her desk clearly in deep contemplation with some visible signs of worry, we watch assorted news clips flash behind her concerning UC Berkeley and a planned response to recent campus violence, hearing her voice from one newscast touting the university’s open-door, honest approach to “hold our institution accountable.” The scene shifts to 1992 as a Young Nina and her boyfriend, Marteen – both UC Berkeley students – banter back-and-forth about Nina’s participating in an event with the then Chancellor. While the older Nina walks around and watches her own daydreamed memory (often with open mouth and some mixture of amazement and irritation), Young Nina and Marteen are debating – sometimes hotly – about the university’s response of a tenured professor’s racist treatment of Marteen. UC has fired the professor; but Marteen thinks that is not enough. He wants denial of a planned pension and has pushed through a resolution by the Black Student Union demanding that the student government adopt the same – something barely passed by the BSU with lots of abstentions in a vote that Nina tells him, “This was your resolution, not ours … your personal matter.”
Nina along with Thomas has been recently elected representative of the university’s student governing group (and the are only the Black members) that is to vote on the BSU-submitted resolution directing the Chancellor to demand to the Regents no pension. Marteen – an agitated, passionate, and persistently ‘in-your-face’ Sam Jackson – has given Nina a necklace with a bullet to give her strength “to take down the beast.” He presses to hear how she will vote and wants to know “if you’re on the inside to bring it down or if you’re on the inside to get cozy.”
Marteen particularly goes after the other rep, Thomas, whom he calls “Uncle Tom” and “nothing but the butler come answering the door.” Thomas (Michael J. Asberry) is a quiet, steady voice of reason and practicality and stands in great contrast to the more hot-headed, action-now Marteen.
While enjoying the flirting and occasional kisses of her boyfriend, Nina (Anna Marie Sharpe) also continues to push back with her own strength of belief against Marteen’s one-track, bull-dozing press for what he sees as the only right way for real change to happen. To Marteen, Nina’s wanting to use her newly acquired student government position for other changes – like funding a new Ethnic Studies professorship or elimination of tuition for low-income students – is just more of “everything just slipping through our fingers and splashing down at our feet when we are walking with a cowardice stride.”
This dichotomous tension between a more radical approach to change and a more step-by-step stance continues as action switches back to 2020. The scene opens with a reenactment of a Berkeley, Black Lives Matter protest and the resulting police brutality playing out both in the powerful videos and photo collages projected across the back wall (kudos to Mary Mackey Productions) and in a slow-motion reenactment of the protest by the full cast. Sounds of helicopters and police sirens (Everett Elton Bradman, sound designer) mix with the live shouts of “Hate speech is now, free speech is now.”
Anna Marie Sharpe and Sam Jackson now are fellow UC students and clearly romantic partners, Miriam and Raz (the latter who uses the pronoun ‘they’). Raz has been injured by a brutal attack by Berkeley police in one of the protests. Like Marteen before they, Raz is a firebrand in advocating an action by the university that he sees as the only response acceptable – a change to the UC vision statement, with an opening line of “Acknowledging that we are a historically racist institution.” Miriam agrees with many of Raz’s points about needing more radical change, but she is much more open to a possible multi-million-dollar settlement coming to the Black Student Union, money that can be used for a host of long-term, much needed changes.
While their disagreements with each other can lead to shouting matches, the love and respect between the two is evident. Several of the plays best scenes are extended back-and-forth one-liners where the two take a concept (e.g., a match starting a campfire or a forest fire) and turning the metaphor for radically different kinds of change into a lovers’ playtime on words and ideas. Later in a return to the campfire imagery when their ideas for acceptable next steps suddenly begin to find some agreement, their scene takes on that of a Black, arm-waving, amen-echoing church service – a tour de force for both outstanding actors.
But where Raz and Miriam have solid agreement is in not participating in Associate Chancellor Nina Bechet’s plan for an open process to “facilitate campus dialogue” in response to the recent police atrocities against Raz and other students – a plan for which she has invited her college friend and now famed book author, Thomas, to lead. As she and Thomas meet with the two BSU representatives (Miriam and Raz) to try to solicit their and the BSU’s support and participation in the much touted, upcoming dialogues, a war of words, approaches, and values erupts. Raz goes head-to-head with both Nina and with Thomas, refusing to back down from a belief that the ‘dialogues’ will be nothing more than ‘negotiations’ – the same kind of round table sessions between Blacks and whites that in the past Raz claims were one where “we’ve gained some creature comforts along the way but never the full recognition of our full humanity.” For Raz, it is the vision statement change or nothing.
The battle of wills brings out the best of each of the members of this cast. Each has moments of erupted anger and blasts of shouts that emit from an internal injury of not being understood or fully listened to by another who is of the same race and who probably shares overall a similar set of liberal beliefs. Such confrontations result both in 1992 and 2020 in blow-ups, exasperation, and sudden exits. But each also is able to show moments of empathy and understanding to the one that earlier was the focus of verbal jabs and even mean-sounding insults. Such moments occur in a chance conversation at an outdoor coffee shop about the joy of writing or a shared contemplation of a hung picture while remembering together a line of poetry – unlikely but powerful moments to put behind earlier, violent disagreements and to meet each other, human to human.
The beauty and powerful message of Cleavon Smith’s script, Dawn Monique Williams’ direction, and the skills of this cast is that even with those whom these four have deep disagreements that at times seem unsurmountable, there are still these captured moments of surprise respect and even personal liking. In a current period where not only do we rarely seen any colleagueship between members of different political parties but also often see flying insults even among those who are of the same party (e.g., progressive versus centrist Democrats), The Incrementalist is a vision of another way to disagree – one that allows seemingly opposite views still to find moments of commonality and understanding. For this and all the earlier stated examples of a superior-in-every-regard production, this Aurora Theatre world premiere should be on the top of every theatregoers to-see list.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet.
The Incrementalist continues through May 15, 2020 in live production on the main stage of Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Streamed performances are available May 10-15, 2020. Tickets for both live and streamed performances are available online at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.
Photos Credit: Kevin Berne