Cleavon Smith knew when he was graduating from high school in Baldwyn, Miss., that he didn’t want to be “indentured.”
Now an Oakland playwright, he was then getting recruited to play college football as a fullback. “I had an older sister who went to private school, and I saw how my parents’ de ella paying her tuition de ella was lorded over her,” he recalled, in a brushy voice with just a trace of a Southern accent. (It takes a fine ear to distinguish his “when” and “win.”)
“I found playing football was a kind of an indentureship that I didn’t want to sacrifice myself to, nor did I want to be indentured to my parents.”
The US Naval Academy, which gave him a scholarship whether he played football or not, seemed the best path. But then he learned: “That’s a different kind of indentureship, because I owed them seven years of my life after that.”
A similar thread — a search for freedom and authenticity, and specifically the freedom to define Black authenticity for oneself — runs through Smith’s work, not least “The Incrementalist,” whose world premiere is in previews at Aurora Theater Company.
Smith, 49, didn’t always see himself as a playwright. When he left the US Navy, which brought him to the Bay Area in 1997, he channeled a lifelong fondness for writing into a class with novelist Floyd Salas at Foothill College. Smith still remembers a Salas prompt that he rocked his world: Write about the worst thing you’ve ever done, but as fiction.
Smith realized, “This is how you drill down on a character. You have the worst thing that they’ve ever done on display, and you have to make them relatable, halfway likable.”
But he struggled in fiction. “All my stories were just in my characters’ heads,” he said.
So he came up with his own writing exercise: 10 pages of dialogue only.
Suddenly, he said, “stories moved. Every line someone speaks or doesn’t speak is a decision. “My characters in my novels weren’t making decisions. Life was happening around them. They were observing, but they weren’t making decisions. They weren’t moving.”
Now, when he writes a script, he feels each character’s moment-by-moment decisions to speak or not speak build tension and urgency.
Since those discoveries, Smith has written plays with PlayGround, Utopia Theater Project and TheatreFirst, first collaborating with Aurora last year on “The Flats,” a pandemic-era audio play. His characters investigate their relationships to hip-hop and “broken English,” as in “The Last Sermon of Sister Imani.” They chart their own courses to freedom, as in his “Vs.,” about Colonel Tye, who escaped American slavery to fight against America in the Revolutionary War.
In “The Incrementalist,” which is directed by Dawn Monique Williams, UC Berkeley campus police attacked Black Student Union leader Raz (Sam Jackson) during a nonviolent protest. Vice Chancellor Nina (Cathleen Riddley) keeps trying to get Raz to take part in a “campus dialogue,” but for Raz, such talks with officials are “negotiations … of our humanity for a few hours of their time.”
Smith, who has witnessed his own share of campus politics over 18 years teaching English literature at Berkeley City College, got 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 just enraged me,” he recalled. “I wrote a manifesto that night. The thing I kept coming back to was values over ideology.”
I have wondered how the political right could purport to hold “family values” while endorsing such cruelties. But then he wondered, “If I put this manifesto out there, how would it be received by white America? How would it be received by Black America? How does my life, to this point, help or hinder 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 whom Nina brings to campus to facilitate dialogue.
Williams, who is Aurora’s associate artistic director, calls the play’s conflict between incrementalist activism and topple-it revolution “my lived existential crisis.”
“I make theater in a way that has been dominated by white people, white men, white patriarchy for so long that that is my understanding of how plays operate,” she said. “I somehow believe that I’m subverting it. I somehow believe that I am somebody who made it inside of the box and that by pushing against the walls, I’m expanding the box or changing the shape of the box.”
She admits, however, that some days she feels she’s complacent, complicit. Other days, she thinks, “No, you keep doing your work, and you also affirm and acknowledge the work of the people who are outside the box and who are going to rip the sides off the box.”
Smith knows that his aesthetic preferences are mainstream, the way he talks and presents himself within convention. Over the years, he’s come to accept, “That is my authentic self.”
Still, he’s attuned to the way he and his character avatars get perceived, and how that perception or misperception is a product of dire politics.
“The need for liberation is so incredibly urgent and immediate that, if you’re going in that direction — and I’m going in this direction — how does it not seem like you’re working against me?
“The urgency distorts how we see each other in that moment,” he went on. His own project by him is “to figure out ways to communicate how we miss-see.”
“The Incrementalist”: Written by Cleavon Smith. Directed by Dawn Monique Williams. Through May 15. $20-$78. Aurora Theater, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org