ONE of the boldest things about the playwright Kia Corthron is
her willingness to embrace an identity that most American
writers would consider a professional liability. "I
consider myself a political writer with a political point of
view," she said recently. "I don't write agit-prop
because I think the point gets across much stronger if the
audience feels something rather than being told something
intellectually. But every play of mine starts from a socio
A few years ago, for
instance, the Atlantic Theater Company approached Ms. Corthron
about commissioning a new play. "We said, `What are you
interested in writing about?' " recalled Neil Pepe, the
company's artistic director. "The first thing she said
was, `The situation of police brutality in New York.' "
The result is "Force Continuum," a drama about three
generations of black police officers, which opens at the
Atlantic on Thursday, directed by Michael John Garcés.
"Police brutality was my
original impetus to write the play," Ms. Corthron said
recently, peeling a clementine in the Atlantic's rehearsal
studio. "I started thinking about it around the time of
Louima, before Diallo."
The names she mentioned loom
large in the recent history of race relations in New York
City. Abner Louima is the Haitian immigrant who was sodomized
with a wooden toilet plunger in a Brooklyn police station;
Amadou Diallo was the Bronx resident who died in a hail of
gunfire by plainclothes officers who said they thought he was
"Now," said Ms.
Corthron, who is 39, "I don't call it a play about police
brutality, because it's more than that. I say the play is
about the relationship between the black community and the
The central character of
"Force Continuum" is Dece, a 24-year-old black
rookie policeman living with his grandfather, who is retired
from the housing police. Dece is following in his parents'
footsteps: his mother, who died of cancer, was a housing
policewoman; his father, a patrol officer, committed suicide
after taking part in the beating of a black man stopped for a
"While I was writing, I
felt first of all that it would be very easy to write a play
about white cops beating up a black man, which we know
happens," Ms. Corthron said with a nervous laugh. "I
decided to complicate it by focusing on a black cop and those
contradictions. But also I really wanted to find solutions. I
didn't want to just say: `This is a problem.' We all know
that. I wanted to see if there's a way to bridge the sense of
black people not trusting the police, police not trusting
blacks — if there's a way to go beyond that."
In a cultural era whose most
successful television show ("Seinfeld") proudly
declared itself to be about nothing, it takes courage to stuff
a play as full of substance as Ms. Corthron does. Not everyone
appreciates her intentions. Virtually every review she has
received talks about The Trouble With Kia Corthron. "She
tries to cover too much ground," The Boston Globe groaned
about her play "Digging Eleven" in 1999 at the
Hartford Stage Company. "There seems to be one theme too
many under scrutiny here," a Baltimore critic wrote about
her play "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down" in 1997
at Centerstage, "making the end result dispersed rather
Such complaints almost always
run alongside acknowledgment of Ms. Corthron's gifts.
Reviewing her drama "Seeking the Genesis" in 1997 at
the Manhattan Theater Club, Ben Brantley of The New York Times
said the "overstuffed, often awkward play, crammed with
medical and sociological data" takes on "larger
social and moral issues than even George Bernard Shaw would
have been comfortable with." Yet, Mr. Brantley said,
"the play shows beguiling evidence of an original
theatrical voice and intelligence."
The playwright is willing to
weather the criticisms. "Because I try not to preach on a
single issue, my plays become bigger and take in more of the
world," she said. "Ultimately, I want people to feel
in the theater, but I also want them to think."
is the first of three plays by Ms. Corthron that will be seen
in New York this season. Another, "Safe Box," begins
performances on Feb. 13 at the Signature Theater Company as
part of "Urban Zulu Mambo," a program of short plays
by four black women. (The other playwrights are Suzan-Lori
Parks, Ntozake Shange, and Regina Taylor, who organized the
evening as a homage to the poet and playwright Adrienne
Kennedy.) Brief and fierce, "Safe Box" rips into
community standards that allow industries to dump carcinogens
into the air and water. And in April, Playwrights Horizons
will stage "Breath, Boom," an intense drama about
girl gangs, which the Royal Court Theater in London
commissioned and produced last February to positive reviews.
Since 1992, when Ms. Corthron
graduated from the master of fine arts program at Columbia
University, nine of the 15 plays she has written have been
commissioned. In other words, major nonprofit theaters have
paid her to write plays for them, including the Long Wharf
Theater in New Haven, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles,
Second Stage in New York and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
It was Ms. Corthron's
unusual, stylized language that caught the attention of Susan
Booth, the literary manager at the Goodman Theater in Chicago,
which commissioned "Seeking the Genesis" and
produced its world premiere in 1996. "I read two one-acts
of Kia's," Ms. Booth said by telephone, "and I was
knocked out by the fact that she created her own language with
an unassailable logic and its own music. The primary reason we
wanted to commission her was that we couldn't compare her to
anyone else. You couldn't say, `It's like (insert iconic
playwright here).' That rarely happens. When it does, you have
to pay attention."
The object of all this
attention is a tall, friendly woman with light- brown skin,
green eyes, and dreadlocks down her back. She speaks in a high
quirky voice — Minnie Mouse as Valley Girl — which you
would never expect to emerge from the author of her tough,
gritty plays. She likes confounding expectations. "I hate
clichés," she said. "They give me a tummy
Ms. Corthron grew up in
Cumberland, a factory town in the tiny sliver of Maryland
wedged between Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Her father
worked at a paper mill, where he died of an aneurysm at 51.
Observing his working life, Ms. Corthron got early lessons in
the exquisite complexity of injustice. "He used to work
10-hour days, and sometimes he'd go 13 or 14 days without a
day off," she remembered. "And my mother said that
he would train these white men 20 years his junior to be his
bosses. He would do their jobs when they weren't there, but
they would never promote him. The excuse they had was that
he'd never completed college."
Writing came naturally. When
her older sister started school, Ms. Corthron would amuse
herself by creating dialogues using clothespins as stick
figures, but she didn't start writing plays until her last
year as a film student at the University of Maryland. A
yearlong writing workshop with the playwright Lonnie Carter
led to graduate school at Columbia and a life in the theater.
The first playwright who
impressed her was David Rabe; she was especially struck by the
heightened language and political content of his Vietnam plays
"The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel" and
"Streamers." Most writers she admires now work in
fiction, like Gerald Vizenor, Annie Proulx and Junot Diaz.
"I like writers who fiddle with the language and you have
to keep up," Ms. Corthron said.
is her first work in New York since "Seeking the
Genesis," her first full-length play, which concerns a
single mother with a hyperactive 8-year-old son and a
15-year-old lost to guns and gangs. It is typical of Ms.
Corthron's work that instead of presenting a crisis and then
solving it tidily, the play expands outward, exposing more
dimensions of the central dilemma. It also showed that Ms.
Corthron is unafraid to be didactic, in the sense of being
instructional rather than pedantic. Where most plays these
days might drop the word "Prozac" as a punch line,
"Seeking the Genesis" spends an entire scene having
a professor explain the chemistry of selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors to a mother agonizing over whether to
medicate her child.
Ms. Corthron does extensive
research on sociopolitical issues for each play. For
"Force Continuum," personal interviews with a
housing policewoman named Karyn Carlo were crucial, as was a
book entitled "The Police Mystique" by Anthony Bouza,
a former Minneapolis police chief and N.Y.P.D. veteran. But
she also kept in mind something she had read in the Brazilian
director Augusto Boal's book "Theater of the
Oppressed" arguing that to institute social change, an
audience has to be left with a sense of hope that there is a
way out of a bleak situation.
What might be the solution to
the conflict between law enforcement and black New Yorkers?
"Community police," Ms. Corthron said.
"Recruiting from the community. I live in Harlem, and a
few weeks ago when I came out of the subway there were
policemen passing out job applications. I found that very
hopeful. There are definitely ugly, ugly, ugly moments, like
Dorismond" — Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed security
guard who was fatally shot by police last year in Manhattan
— "Diallo, Louima. But I think things are
February 4, 2001