We are all biased for and against certain things. That's what happens as you live your life and find yourself biased in favor of coconut cream pie and not in favor of thunder storms. Or vice versa. The list of these biases, or prejudices, is endless.
Of course, those are the easy biases. It gets dicey when biases are directed at specific groups and at particular individuals within those groups. And it becomes a matter of life and death when those biases are held by armed people who have the legal authority to shoot and kill other people, sometimes based on their individual perceptions alone.
The latter kind of biases are the ones being explored in Breakout Session (or Frogorse), the world premiere of a script by the acclaimed playwright Nikkole Salter. It was commissioned by Cleveland Public Theatre with additional funding from the National New Play Network.
The play was triggered by Cleveland's Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014, which called upon the Cleveland Police Department to address multiple failings. The report documented numerous uses of excessive force, involving shooting, tasers and hitting suspects, along with systemic problems “including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community.”
To attack this bundle of issues, the playwright places the action in a small room in a police station. That's where two employees of a company providing in-service training, supervisor Jessica and her newbie underling Sara, are conducting a class on Building Empathy. Their three students, two officers and a Sergeant, are in attendance displaying varying degrees of interest.
The action of the play switches from realistic training scenes to the surreal, as four of those five characters briefly adopt animal/human hybrid identities ("catfish comedian," "crocodile magician," "canary guru" and "bat scientist") and address the audience directly. It's all about seeing things from different perspectives and how we must find a way to broaden our range of perspectives in order to pay heed to other people's truths.
The goal playwright Salter sets for herself—providing pathways to solve the problem of ingrained and unconscious bias—is a big one. And her answers come at you in waves in the form of the company's recalcitrant PowerPoint presentation, Sara's impromptu role-playing games, a boardroom flipchart, a behavioral chart (!) that is offered both in the play and in the program, and even a pontificating crustacean.
What Salter does, she does well and innovatively. But what she does in this script is not what theater does best. A play is better at exploring questions than in offering solutions, better at giving the audience a peek into the minds of those with whom we often disagree or don't understand.
The piece would be more affecting if it had stayed true to its parenthetical title, "Frogorse." You may be familiar with the frog-horse optical illusion which, like the illusion of the long-haired young woman and a scarf-wearing old woman, look like one thing until you change your perspective and see the other thing.
It's a great alternate title for this work. But what's missing in this production is that exhilarating rush of realization when you see something from a different angle. That is what a play can offer that no amount of well-intentioned bullet points and glib aphorisms ("You are not your mind." "Want a new destination? Sing a new song.") can deliver.
While the script is a bit overloaded and often didactic, even with all its well-intentioned wisdom, the play is enlivened by the performances of the talented cast. Director Beth Wood finds interesting ways to move them about the stage, wheeling props here and there. And she brings interesting interpretations out of Jimmie Woody and Enrique Miguel as the beat cops while Tina D. Stump is a badge-wearing Sergeant/curmudgeon of the first water. And as Jessica, Nicole Sumlin effectively registers frustration with her employee Sara.
Jess Moore has a more complicated task as Sara, who begins as a snappy free spirit. But then it's not clear if she is intentionally sabotaging the training by reading in a droning, unintelligible manner from the training manual. Sara finishes as a rebellious employee fighting for her own spontaneous, organic version of the training. This Sara-Jessica tiff feels like an extraneous sub-plot, but Moore does the best she can with it.
Speaking from the perspective of a "crab critic," one has to admire the intention of this play and the production, from Benjamin Gantose's flexible lighting and videos to Obediya Jones-Darrell's original musical compositions.
But Breakout Session has more information nodes and points of view than can fit into this two-act play. This is all topped off by the concluding appearance of a Mantis Shrimp (Beau Reinker), that shows up because of that particular crustacean's ability to perceive colors that the human eye cannot.
With that concluding metaphor about perspectives, you are left with a mixed bag that entertains and amuses. However it only lightly touches, during the last 20 minutes, on the real emotional recoil created by bias when it is imposed by the force—sometimes the lethal force—of the law.
Breakout Session (Or Frogorse)
Through March 14 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, cptonline.org, 216-631-2727.
Christine Howey, former stage actor and director, is executive director of Literary Cleveland.