An Unfortunate Jumbled Mess in 'Force Continuum' at Karamu House

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The relationship between any African-American community and the police is certainly a fraught one these days. So this 15-year old play about a family of black police officers certainly has a target-rich environment in which to address its themes.

Unfortunately, playwright Kia Corthron throws out a jumble of scenes involving lots of characters played by actors playing multiple roles, and it all comes crashing down. Even some electrifying moments provided by director Michael Oatman can’t rescue this convoluted script from its own destruction.

Dece is a black police officer in New York City, one of a long line of cops in his family. Conflicted about his role as a cop and also a black man, Dece goes to his grandfather for advice. Dece’s parents, also cops, are now dead but are represented in flashbacks made more confusing by all the crossover casting.

Dece also converses with his white partner Flip while in their patrol car, and elsewhere, but these dialogues never seem to connect to an overarching theme that has any dramatic heft. Indeed, every scene seems to have a lot of baggage to carry, making sure that all the bases are touched.

These include how black citizens feel when they’re stopped on the street unnecessarily, and then how the black and white cops feel when they’re off duty. Eventually, all the information, emotional and otherwise, folds in on itself leaving the audience reaching for something significant.

As Dece, the excellent actor Prophet Seay seems a bit adrift in this sea of well-meaning topicality, unsure of where his character is and where he’s going. The performer named EulaBill, on the other hand, seems quite certain about his role as the grandfather, but his repeatedly shouted/whispered line readings become too mannered to be effective. Several of the white cops are played by Ryan Christopher Mayer, often employing a curious New York accent that sounds like it came by way of Narnia. The rest of the cast, each of whom plays at least three characters each, includes Shba Cochrane, India Nicole Burton, Chace Coulter, James Boyd, Josh McElroy and Jamil Burch.

Usually, having actors play multiple roles is not a problem. But here, playwright Corthron doesn’t provide the characters enough space and distinctiveness to allow the audience to keep pace. Director Oatman adds some nice touches, such as the beating of a young black man by invisible cops, plus an encounter with two arguing wastrels on the street that captures the antic vibe of The Jerry Springer Show.

But those moments of clarity are few and far between in the sprawling, clumsily written Force Continuum.

Force Continuum
Through November 22 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

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