Review: ‘Force Continuum’ at Cohesion Theatre Company

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Force Continuum opened at Cohesion Theatre Company on Friday – three days after the first anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimorian who died from injuries sustained while in police custody, sparking the Baltimore Uprising.

Bobby Hennenberg (Flip) and Mari Andrea (Mrai), and Terrance Fleming (Dece).
Bobby Hennenberg (Flip) and Mari Andrea (Mrai), and Terrance Fleming (Dece). Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography

Force Continuum tells the story of third generation African-American police officer, Dece Becker. Through Dece, the play illustrates the day-to-day challenges that arise from simultaneously being a black man and a cop. It also shows how, working within a broken system, one can easily and quickly become both victim and victimizer.

Terrance Fleming is outstanding as Dece Becker. He makes nuanced physical and vocal changes to portray Dece from the age of 15 through adulthood. Fleming’s portrayal of the conflicted police officer masterfully shows Dece’s inner turmoil as he struggles with not feeling fully accepted in either of the communities of which he’s a part. That duality, and the resulting situations Dece faces, is an ongoing struggle which becomes his undoing. Fleming’s ability to maintain the simmering disillusionment and the conflict of Dece’s warring identities was exceptional.

Eleven year-old Dece was convincingly played by Robert Highsmith, who additionally portrayed a crafty, well-read drug dealer named Marley. His transformations between the two were well-executed and are a testament to his range as an actor.

Josh Thomas, as Dece’s grandfather, is a pleasure to watch. A retired police officer, he is full of advice and instruction for his grandson, who he raised since Dece’s parents (both police officers themselves) died when he was a child. My favorite of Thomas’ scenes is a time-bending memory sequence in which the grandfather is out on his beat, teaching his rookie daughter the ropes of being Housing Police. This scene shines as an example of what policing should be. Officers who are a part of the communities they serve, acting as an organic part of the community instead of as an occupying force. Also, the connection between past and present in this scene is clever and unexpected.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene in the play is an emotional monologue by Malcolm Anomnachi, who plays Dece’s father. Recounting an upsetting occurrence at work, Anomnachi embodies his character’s desperation and distress. There were some lines I missed because, by the peak of his dismay, Anomnachi was speaking pretty fast, but none of the meaning was lost on me. It remains a standout performance in a production full of great performances.

I didn’t realize how remarkable Christian Harris’ talent was until I consulted the program after the show. That was when I saw that she not only portrayed Dece’s mom, but also two drastically different other characters – a homeless woman named Tamra Jane and a junkie named Tina. Each of these characters was so complete a person and so well-executed that I honestly didn’t grasp that they were all performed by the same actor. Well done.

Nate Couser was also tasked with achieving multiple personalities in this play. Five of them. He showed skill and flexibility in switching between characters, giving them each something unique that distinguished them clearly. From the bartender at the cop bar who doesn’t ask questions to the purse-stealing youngster who has to face not just the police, but his mother, Couser skillfully breathes life into his characters.

Mari Andrea and Thaddeus Street play, among other roles, Mrai and Dray – a sister and brother who have very unfortunate interactions with the police. Their individual performances as the ill-fated siblings are powerful, realistic and central to the messages of the play. Also, seeing the familial bond between Mrai and Dray early in the play, and the kindness (and sass) with which they live their normal, domestic life, makes the violence later done to them all the more disturbing.

Between them, Bobby Hennenberg and Glen Haupt play 9 white police officers. Several of their characters are essentially “generic white cop,” but each actor has a standout role in their collection. Hennenberg, as Dece’s partner Flip, acts as a foil; by contrast, he highlights Dece’s dual nature and the concerns he has as an African-American cop. Hennenberg plays Flip as a likeable, though flawed, cop whose fears and conscience get the better of him. Haupt plays Officer Hudson with neither fear nor conscience. He is, in fact, convincingly despicable. His morally-challenged character can be summed up with his line, “Losin’ good cops is a greater evil than perjury.”

I do have a couple issues about the play, but they are primarily about the script. First, Force Continuum does not follow a linear narrative. Each scene is like a stand-alone vignette, jumping back and forth through time and interrelated storylines. It is, frankly, a bit confusing at first. Once I got used to it, I was able to get my bearings as to time and place, but a larger cast would have helped with this. A few actors were playing a startling number of roles each; one of them, Glen Haupt had six roles – all cops. Director Rosalind Cauthen worked with this as well as one can – even her small cast is larger than the playwright notes in the script, but it was hard.

The other small issue I had was with a dance sequence at one point in the play. My companion loved it, but I found it to be out of place. The rest of the play is gritty realism. The dance, though beautiful choreographed and expertly performed by Mari Andrea, struck me as too symbolic and removed from the vibe of the rest of the show. At first I actually thought it marked the end of the show – which, if it had been true, I would have accepted more readily – but there is another scene after it. And that scene, featuring Thomas’ grandfather character and supported by his progeny, was riveting.

Josh Thomas and Terrance Fleming. Photo courtesy Cohesion Theatre Company.
Josh Thomas and Terrance Fleming. Photo courtesy Cohesion Theatre Company. Photo by Shealyn Jae Photography.

Timely and important, Cohesion’s production of Force Continuum is a powerful, unflinching look at how systemic racism and the militarization of law enforcement affect African-American communities and the officers, both white and black, who police them. The play is extremely well-acted and cleverly produced by a talented director and creative team. Though it addresses important and dismaying issues, Playwright Kia Corthron wrote in enough laughs and enough hope that it is not a chore to watch. When leaving the theater, I did not feel bleakness and despair, but a call to action.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, plus a 15-minute intermission.

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Force Continuum plays through May 8, 2016 at Cohesion Theatre, performing at their new location: United Evangelical Church – 3200 Dillon Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.

BONUS: In keeping with the play’s focus on not just societal problems, but also on the search for solutions, Cohesion will be hosting a series of post-show discussions after all of their Sunday matinee performances. Participants will include the cast and director of Force Continuum, as well as guest panelists from academia, the arts, and the police department.