CPT’s exceptional ‘Incendiaries’ uses drama to spark discussion on issues of race in Cleveland

By Bob Abelman

“This happened.”

These are the final words in the play “Incendiaries,” which explores the race riots that tore through Cleveland’s East Side Hough neighborhood in the late 1960s. Gunfire left four dead and dozens injured. Hundreds of fires swept through the area as looters trashed stores, causing millions of dollars in damage. More than 2,000 Ohio National Guardsmen were brought in to restore peace.

But the hope of the play’s creators is that these won’t be the last words when it comes to public discussion about the conflict that exists between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

Conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson and receiving its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, “Incendiaries” asks audiences to reflect upon the social injustice that happened in the past with the understanding that it is happening still.

In fact, during rehearsals for this production, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed across the street from the apartment of a cast member.

The play’s subject matter and timeliness most certainly inspires contemplation, discussion and debate. But what is particularly remarkable is its ability to transform historical text, actual trial transcripts, and documented citizen accounts into riveting theater.

The 60-minute production employs seven actors — Brittni Shambaugh Addison, Wesley Allen, Ashley Aquilla, Laprise Johnson, Daniel McNamara, Randi Renee, and Chris Walker — who dramatically re-enact six days of Cleveland history using nothing more than three chairs and one table. Their performance is seen through a wispy mist of smoke that creates both the haze of past-tense remembrance and the realization that the city’s on fire.

Rather than projecting archival news footage and aiming toward stark realism, “Incendiaries” dramatizes events and theatrically reimagines those involved in the Hough riots, so it steers clear of any semblance of overtly educational public service programming. And, by choosing artistry over authenticity, Robertson adds weight and intensity to the storytelling.

The play unfolds in sequential scenarios that seamlessly morph from one location in Hough — a bedroom, a storefront, a paddy wagon, a hospital bed — to the next with a clever adjustment in the placement of the table and a chair, accentuated by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and Darryl Dickenson’s sound designs.

Actors climb on, around and through the furniture with the dexterity of the Pilobolus dance troupe, and become passionate witnesses or frightened victims in one scene and angry mobs or angrier police officers in another. They are wonderful in all that they do and only falter when the fever pitch of some performers’ anger occasionally overtakes the words spoken by others.

Even with some words obscured, this is a powerful production. And who knows: if one event at Seventy-Niners’ Cafe on the southeast corner of Hough and East 79th Street on the evening of July 18, 1966 can spark tensions that escalate into riots, then perhaps one play taking place at Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street can spark the kind of dialogue that will keep this from happening again. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Incendiaries”

WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Jan. 23

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News in January 2016.

Lead photo: The cast of “Incendiaries.” PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography