New Aurora Theater Show Tackles Racial Tensions and Progressive Change in Berkeley

“The Incrementalist,” by Bay Area playwright Cleavon Smith, will premiere at the Aurora Theater on April 15. Credit: Aurora Theater

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The latest in Aurora Theater Company’s new works incubator program, “The Incrementalist,” by Cleavon Smith, takes an introspective look at Berkeley’s rich political history and the struggle for sweeping change that continues to provoke tensions in the community today.

The world premiere, which is due to open on April 15, follows the story of Nina, Vice Chancellor of the University of California, who is caught between her loyalty to a much-loved public intellectual and student demands to end to his visit to campus after a member of the Black Student Union is badly beaten by police during a peaceful protest.

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

Cleavon Smith is Aurora Theater’s 2022 Originate + Generate Artist. Credit: Aurora Theater

As Smith’s first solo commission at the Aurora Theater, the show was crafted through the company’s Originate + Generate program, which gives artists the ability to create deeply relevant stories. This New Works Development Program grew out of its predecessor, the Global Age Project, which served as a discovery program to discover previously written new plays 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 in 10 years only a handful of these plays have ended up making world premieres at Aurora,” said Costello.

In 2015, the artistic team at Costello and Aurora decided to focus on creating opportunities for much deeper relationships with one writer at a time.

“Origin + Generate is about commissioning a playwright each year to write a play from scratch and provide them with the development support they need to take a play from idea stage to world premiere,” said said Costello. The program focuses most of its attention and investment on works generated by Bay Area artists.

Dawn Monique Williams, the associate artistic director who will also lead the production of Smith – her directorial debut with the O+G program – helped select Smith as a commissioned artist this year. She feels a special connection to the series, 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 Theater

“I was walking Cal, so for me to tell a House story that’s really centered around House politics is both to applaud the work we’ve done at Berkeley, but also to demystify and demystify the work that we did at Berkeley, feels especially important,” Williams said.

The main conflict in the play is between the desire for immediate action and the patience for change to come gradually.

“When you experience the play, you begin to think of a person as the incrementalist, then over time you realize that all of us, whether through complacency, helplessness, or failing systems, are relegated to the incrementalist role,” Williams said. “If we even use the murder of Breonna Taylor for the recent murder of Amir Locke as a measuring stick for what has really changed in the past two years, it might seem extremely lame.”

When Smith won the Aurora Theater commission, he was already in the early stages of charting “The Incrementalist.” The story was inspired when, immediately after leaving “Hamilton” with his family in San Francisco, he was confronted with the headlines of that night.

“We were just stoned from the experience” of that show, Smith said, “and when I turned on my phone at BART, I saw all these messages from people asking what was going on in Mississippi. that’s when i went online and heard about the ICE raids and these incredibly inhumane family separations 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 spectacle came when he realized that his questions about how people form and share their values ​​with each other didn’t have just one answer.

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

During its development, “The Incrementalist” has undergone a number of revisions, becoming deeply affected as global and global conversations about politics continue to shift.

“O+G gave me that time to really find out what the story was about, who the story was about, what I was trying to say, and it also allowed me these readings with these incredibly talented actors “Smith said. “Their thoughts and touch really helped me shape the voices in the piece.”

Speaking about Williams’ influence as a director, Smith said she “just had this amazing eye for picking up on the intricacies of my writing in a way that no one I’d worked with before had. “

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

“You’ll hear a lot of directors say they worked on something at the start, and then when the project moved forward, they weren’t attached anymore,” Williams said. “But to have really cultivated the space for this game with Cleavon, from start to finish, is so special.”

To discover the Originate+Generate program, go to and purchase tickets to “The Incrementalist,” which premieres on the Aurora Theater Main Stage on April 15.

This story is written and paid for by Aurora Theater Companywhose mission, as our community’s storyteller, is to inspire new audiences and long-time theatergoers with the visceral power of live theater, challenging us all to think deeper and laugh harder. .