He was a college football recruit, then a naval officer. He is now an Auckland playwright

Playwright Cleven Smith came up with the idea for “The Incrementalist” from immigration raids that separated children from their parents. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

By the time she graduated from Miss Baldwin High School, Clevon Smith knew she did not want to be “intuitive.”

He was now an Auckland playwright and was later recruited to play college football as a fullback. “I had an older sister who went to private school and I saw how my parents paid for her tuition,” he recalled in a pen voice marked with a Southern accent. (A good ear is needed to distinguish his “when” and “will win.”)

“I found playing football to be a kind of contract, and I did not want to give it up to myself, nor did I want to make a deal with my parents.”

Whether he played football or not, the US Naval Academy, which awarded him a scholarship, seemed to be the best path. But then he realized: “It’s a different deal, because I owe them seven years of my life after that.”

A similar thread – the search for freedom and authenticity, especially the freedom to define the authenticity of blackness – runs through Smith’s works, not the world premiere of “The Incrementalist” in the preview of the Aurora Theater Company.

Playwright Cleven Smith watches actors rehearse “The Incrementalist” at the Aurora Theater Company in Berkeley. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

The 49-year-old Smith did not always see himself as a playwright. When he left the U.S. Navy that brought him to the Bay Area in 1997, he led a lifelong desire to write a class with Floyd College novelist Floyd Salas. Smith still remembers a salacious suggestion that shook his world: write about the worst thing you’ve ever done, but for fiction.

Smith realized, “This is how you chase a character. You have the worst thing they have ever exhibited, and you have to make them relative and like halfway through.

But he struggled in fiction. “All my stories were just in the head of my characters,” he said.

So he came up with his own writing practice: only 10 pages of dialogue.

Suddenly he said, “The stories are gone. Every line that someone speaks or does not say is a decision. “My characters in my novels were not decision makers. Life was going on around them. They were watching, but they were not making decisions. They did not move. ”

Now, as he writes a script, it seems to him that the decisions that each character speaks or does not make every moment increase the tension and urgency.

Since those discoveries, Smith has co-written plays with Playground, the Utopia Theater Project, and Theater First, and last year collaborated with Aurora on a pandemic-era audio play called “The Flats.” His characters explore their connection with hip-hop and “broken English”, as in “Sister Imani’s Last Sermon”. His “Vs.” As in, they chart their own courses to independence.

Michael J. Asberry (left), Sam Jackson, and Anna-Mary Sharpe rehearse “The Incrementalist”. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

In the movie “The Incrementalist” directed by Don Monique Williams, UC Berkeley campus police attack Black Student Union leader Ross (Sam Jackson) during a violent protest. Vice Chancellor Nina (Kathleen Ridley) tries to get Ross involved in a “campus dialogue,” but for Ross, such conversations with officials are “discussions of our humanity for hours at a time.”

Smith, who has been teaching English literature at Berkeley City College for 18 years and saw his own role in campus politics, came up with the idea for the show in 2019 after reading about immigration and customs enforcement raids on Mississippi factories that separated children from their parents.

“It made me angry,” he recalled. “That night I wrote a manifesto. I came back to values ​​rather than ideology. ”

He wondered how the political right could maintain “family values” while acknowledging such atrocities. But he wondered, “If I put this manifesto there, how will white America accept it?” How will Black America be accepted? How does my life, at this point, help or disrupt that message? How does this message challenge my life and my choices? ”

That manifesto inspired the character of Thomas (Michael J. Asberry), a moderate intellectual who brings Nina to campus to facilitate conversation.

Michael J. Asbury rehearses “The Incrementalist”. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Williams, Aurora’s associate artistic director, calls the theatrical conflict between incrementalist activism and the subversive revolution “my living existential crisis.”

“For so long I have been building the theater in a way that is dominated by whites and whites and white patriarchs, and that is my understanding of how plays work,” she said. “I believe I am subverting it somehow. I somehow believe that I am the one who made the inside of the box and pressed it against the walls to expand the box or change the shape of the box.

However, she admits that on some days she is an invigorator and partner. Other days, she thinks, “No, you’re just doing your job, and you’re confirming and approving the work of those outside the box and those who are going to tear the sides of the box.”

Playwright Cleven Smith talks to director Don Monique Williams during a rehearsal. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Smith knows that the way he speaks and presents at conventions, his aesthetic preferences are mainstream. Over time, he began to acknowledge that “that is my authenticity.”

Yet, that misunderstanding or misunderstanding of how he and his character incarnations are perceived is the result of harsh politics.

“The need for redemption is incredibly urgent and immediate, and if you are going in that direction – if I am going in this direction – how do you not feel that you are working against me?

“Emergency distorts how we see each other in that moment,” he continued. His own project is “How We Miss the Missing – How to Find Ways to Communicate”.

“The Incrementalist”: Written by Clevan Smith. Directed by Don Monique Williams. Until May 15. $ 20- $ 78. Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org

  • Lily Janiac
    Lily Janiac is a playwright for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: LilyJaniak

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