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

This incisive and stimulating world premiere production of The Incrementalist by Cleavon Smith is set very close to home — right on the UC Berkeley campus.

The play dramatically portrays the struggles for meaningful changes to campus life by members of the Black Student Union. The Incrementalist clarifies that the conflict between Black students and the UC Berkeley administration has been festering for many years. In this play, we observe Black students’ tense discussions 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 firebrand, Marteen (the fabulous Sam Jackson, Father/Daughter). In a natural give-and-take repartee, the two students talk, love, jibe and plot their stratagems. Nina is not as confrontational and radical as Marteen. Her interest in working within the system becomes apparent 30 years later when an older Nina (played by Cathleen Riddley) has become Vice Chancellor at Cal.

In 2022, two Black Student Union leaders, Miriam (Anna Marie Sharpe) and her lover, the more revolutionary Raz (Sam Jackson), mirror some of the arguments of the earlier generation. The campus police had broken Raz’s collarbone in what the students intended 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 believes that such discussions serve no purpose other than to paper over the problem for 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 self-conscious elements of the production. In awkwardly staged moments, Nina from 2022 stands mute and observes her younger self with Marteen.  

Credit: Aurora Theatre

And then there is the 2022 character, Thomas (Michael J. Asberry), an old friend of Nina’s from graduate school. He’s a Black public intellectual and author who wrote a book about how to hold difficult conversations. Nina has brought him in to facilitate the campus dialogue. It is clear that his primary interest is in selling his book and helping his friend (in that order). But we don’t learn enough about him to understand him or his relationship with Nina.

The Incrementalist shines in its first-class acting, flawless direction by Dawn Monique Williams and the well-written natural banter between the students of each 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 of the campus dispute, are not worthy of the rest of the play.

Cleavon Smith. Credit: Aurora Theatre

Cleavon Smith, the well-regarded playwright of The Flats and a Berkeley City College English professor, was given an Aurora Theatre Company “Originate+Generate” award in 2020 that allowed him to write a play from start to finish, with developmental support from Aurora that included rehearsal staging with actors and directors. And Smith took advantage of this prospect to see the work through many iterations while the political landscape grew and changed dramatically. With The Incrementalist, he has taken on a complex subject and succeeded in exploring its facets with a novel and authentic approach. Cleavon Smith should be congratulated.

Don’t miss the effective film montage of various Berkeley scenes over the years that is shown as a backdrop to the play and during intermission.

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

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...