“The Incrementalist,” by Bay Area playwright Cleavon Smith, premieres at Aurora Theatre April 15. Credit: Aurora Theatre

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The latest from Aurora Theatre Company’s new works incubator program, “The Incrementalist,” by Cleavon Smith, takes an introspective look at Berkeley’s rich political history and the fight for radical change that continues to cause tension in the community today.

The world premiere show, set to open April 15, follows the story of Nina, vice chancellor of the University of California, who is caught between her loyalty to a highly regarded public intellectual and the demands of students to shut down his visit to campus after a member of the Black Student Union is violently beaten by police during a peaceful protest.

“It’s a very relevant story to the moment that we’re living in right now,” said Josh Costello, Aurora’s artistic director. “It’s a story about police violence and the reaction to it, and about incrementalism versus radical change.”

Cleavon Smith is Aurora Theatre’s 2022 Originate+Generate artist. Credit: Aurora Theatre

As Smith’s first solo commission at Aurora Theatre, the show was crafted by the company’s Originate+Generate program, which gives artists the opportunity to create profoundly relevant stories. This program to develop new works grew out of its predecessor, the Global Age Project, which served as a discovery program to uncover new plays already written that were set in the 20th century and beyond.

“Our audience loved coming to see these new plays and we had great post-show conversations about their themes, but over the course of 10 years, only a handful of those plays ended up getting their world premieres at Aurora,” Costello said.

In 2015, Costello and Aurora’s artistic team decided to shift their focus toward creating opportunities for much deeper relationships with one writer at a time.

“Originate+Generate is about commissioning a playwright every year to write a play from scratch and give them the development support that they need to take a play from the idea stage all the way through to a world premiere,” Costello said. The program directs most of its focus and investment toward works generated by Bay Area artists.

Dawn Monique Williams, the associate artistic director who will also be directing Smith’s production — her directorial debut with the O+G program — helped select Smith as this year’s commissioned artist. She feels a special connection to the show, as someone who grew up in Berkeley and spent much of her youth on the UC Berkeley campus.

Dawn Williams’ makes her O+G directorial debut with “The Incrementalist.” Credit: Aurora Theatre

“I was marching at Cal, so for me to really be telling a story of home that’s really centered in the politics of home, that is both applauding the work that we have done in Berkeley but also demystifying and mythbusting the work that we have done in Berkeley, feels especially important,” said Williams.

The play’s main conflict lies between the desire for immediate action and having patience that change will come incrementally.

“When you experience the play you start thinking one person is the incrementalist and then over time you realize that we all, whether it’s through complacency, or impotence, or failed systems, are relegated to the role of the incrementalist,” Williams said. “If we even just use the murder of Breonna Taylor to the recent murder of Amir Locke as a measuring stick for what really has changed in the last two years, it can feel overwhelmingly like nothing.”

When Smith won the commission at Aurora Theatre, he was already in the beginning stages of mapping out “The Incrementalist.” The story was inspired when, immediately after walking out of “Hamilton” with his family in San Francisco, he was confronted by that night’s headlines. 

“We were just high from the experience” of that show, Smith said, “and when I turned my phone on at BART, I saw all these messages from people asking about what’s going on in Mississippi. That’s when I went online and I saw about the ICE raids and those incredibly inhumane separations of families. I was just livid, and I went home that night and I just wrote pages and pages.”

The realization that he could turn some of this material into a show came when he realized that his questions about how people form and share their values with one another didn’t just have one answer. 

“I’m the kind of writer who writes to discover what my story is.” Smith said. “O+G for me was incredibly flexible, and I needed that flexibility.”

Over the course of its development, “The Incrementalist” has gone through a number of revisions, becoming deeply affected as world and global conversations about politics continue to change. 

“O+G gave me that time to really discover what the story was, who the story was about, what I was trying to say, and it also afforded me these reads with these incredibly talented actors,” Smith said. “Their thoughts and their touch to it really helped me shape the voices of the play.”

Speaking on Williams’ directorial influence, Smith said she “just has this incredible eye to catch the subtleties of my writing in a way that nobody I had worked with prior had.”

Being attached to a project since its inception is a new experience for Williams, and one that she doesn’t take lightly.

“You’ll hear a lot of directors say they worked on something early and then when the project moved on they were no longer attached,” Williams said. “But to have really cultivated the space for this play with Cleavon, start-to-finish, is so special.”

To experience the Originate+Generate Program come to life, visit auroratheatre.org and purchase tickets to “The Incrementalist,” premiering at Aurora Theatre’s mainstage April 15.

This story is written and paid for by Aurora Theatre Company, whose mission, as the storyteller for our community, is to inspire new audiences and longtime theatre lovers alike with the visceral power of live theatre, challenging all of us to think deeper and laugh louder.