Black Cal students’ theories of political change unfold over decades in ‘The Incrementalist’

Anna Marie Sharpe and Sam Jackson in Cleavon Smith The Incrementalist. Credit: Kevin Berne

This incisive and stimulating world premiere of The Incrementalist by Cleavon Smith is located very close to you, directly on the UC Berkeley campus.

The play dramatically depicts the struggles for meaningful change in campus life by members of the Black Student Union. The Incrementalist points out that the conflict between black students and the administration of UC Berkeley has been simmering for many years. In this piece, we observe the tense discussions of black students about the viability of incremental change versus more immediate action in the years 1992 and 2022.

In the 1992 scenes, we are introduced to the student, Nina, excellently played by Anne Marie Sharpe, and the instigator, Marteen (the fabulous Sam Jackson, Father daughter). In a natural back-and-forth repartee, the two students talk, love each other, make fun of each other and plot their schemes. Nina is not as confrontational and radical as Marteen. His interest in working within the system becomes apparent 30 years later when an older Nina (played by Cathleen Riddley) becomes Cal’s vice-chancellor.

In 2022, two leaders of the Black Student Union, Miriam (Anna Marie Sharpe) and her lover, the most revolutionary Raz (Sam Jackson), reflect some of the arguments of the previous generation. Campus police had broken Raz’s collarbone in what the students wanted to be a peaceful protest. As a result, Nina wants the Black Student Union to participate in a campus-wide dialogue to calm things down. But Raz thinks such discussions serve no purpose other than to hide the problem from the Cal administration.

Cathleen Riddley and Michael J. Asberry. Credit: Kevin Berne

The back and forth between the years 1992 and 2022 provides much of the drama and some of the confusing and awkward elements of the production. In awkwardly staged moments, 2022’s Nina remains mute and observes herself younger with Marteen.

Credit: Aurora Theater

And then there’s 2022’s character, Thomas (Michael J. Asberry), an old friend of Nina’s since grad school. He is a black intellectual and public author who wrote a book on how to hold difficult conversations. Nina brought him in to facilitate dialogue on campus. It’s clear that his main interest is to sell his book and help his friend (in that order). But we don’t learn enough about him to understand his relationship with Nina.

The Incrementalist shines in its first-class acting, the flawless direction of Dawn Monique Williams, and the well-written natural banter between students of every generation. Their passion, love, political theories, humor, body language and unaffected use of slang are brilliantly believable. The plot twists, including a late second-act coincidence and a last-minute resolution to the dispute on campus, are unworthy of the rest of the play.

Clevon Smith. Credit: Aurora Theater

Cleavon Smith, the renowned playwright of The apartments and English professor at Berkeley City College, received the 2020 Aurora Theater Company Originate+Generate Award for writing a play from start to finish, with development support from Aurora which included rehearsals with actors and directors. And Smith took advantage of that perspective to see the work through many iterations as the political landscape grew and changed dramatically. With The Incrementalist, he tackled a complex subject and succeeded in exploring its facets with an original and authentic approach. Cleavon Smith is to be commended.

Don’t miss the effective cinematic montage of various Berkeley scenes over the years, which is featured as the play’s backdrop and during intermission.

Live performances at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley run through May 15. The streaming performances are available May 10-15. The Incrementalist runs for two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Proof of vaccination and wearing a mask is required. Tickets cost between $20 and $78. For information and tickets, visit the theater’s website or call 510-843-4822.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and arts critic since 2012.

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