Kia Corthron: A Playwright Who's Unafraid to Admit She's Political

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 political issue."

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 armed.

"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 N.Y.P.D."

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 traffic violation.

"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 than concentrated."

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."

"Force Continuum" 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 ache."

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.

"Force Continuum" 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 changing."

February 4, 2001

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