Saturday, February 29, 2020

Relevant yet unfulfilling “BREAKOUT SESSION” @ Cleveland Public Theatre

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

Award winning Nikkole Salter, the author of “BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” which is getting its world premiere on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre, has written 8 full-length plays.  Her works have appeared in over 20 Off-Broadway, regional and international theatres.

In “BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” which was commissioned by CPT with funding from the National New Play Network (NNPN), the author intends to cast a spotlight on racism, bias and violence.  Her goal is to ask, “Can a society legislate a change of heart?”  It was “inspired by Cleveland’s Consent Decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, which required the Police Department to go through anti-bias training.” 

Director Beth Wood, in her program notes states, “This play is about blind spots due to our unconscious bias.”  She goes on to state, “We all have blind spots and we must interrupt them—but how?  How do we know when our automatic associations are hurting other people?”  

Raymond Bobgan, the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director further states, “To believe another’s perspective, there must be trust.  How can we build two-way bridges of trust between us with all of our history—with all that’s happening in the present?  Can society legislate a change of heart?  Can we mandate cultural change?”

He goes on to state, “Theatre nurtures a hunger for connection and has the potential for greatness when it deals with complexity.”  “Nikkole Salter is a true artist.  She is able to guide audiences down the path of self and social examination, while moving us to laughter and tears and asking us to consider and value perspectives different from our own.”  

Those views set high levels of anticipation for BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE) to be a mind-shattering, new and insightful experience.

In spite of a nicely honed production, the over-all effect is unfortunately, not that impactful.
We find ourselves in a training session with three Cleveland police people, an African American male and female and a Hispanic male.  The session is conducted by a seemingly unequipped Caucasian, with an acting degree, who is supposed to follow a preset lecture/power point presentation.  She fails to hold the attention of the trio, so she diverts from the research-oriented, statistic-centric format, much to the consternation of her female African American supervisor.  

Conflicts over teaching style, experiential role-plays and activities and interjections by a bat scientist, mantis shrimp, crocodile magician and catfish comedian, are intended to highlight the author’s “Bias Bubble” diagram.  

The bias concept centers on our conscious experiences leading to perceptions, from which we make unconscious associations that lead to judgements, biases and beliefs, which revolve into actions.

Nikkole Salter’s concept of bias is not unique.  The idea is commonly espoused in social science literature and has even been musically expressed in “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in “SOUTH PACIFIC” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” in “AVENUE Q.”

I wish I could say that Salter has added some new dialogue to the stage in her BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” but she hasn’t.  

The use of real incidents that led to the consent decree, the showing clearly how the biases develop through actual examples, the effective use of the teaching model to make the audience think of their own experiences, and a plan of action to actually help the police, all would have helped make the experience more meaningful.   

As for CPT’s production.  The cast (Jess Moore, Nicole Sumlin, Jimmie Woody, Tina D. Stump, Enrique Miguel and Beau Reinker) puts out full effort and are believable in their roles. With a single exception, they are easy to hear.  

The technical aspects are well conceived.  Inda Blatch-Gelb’s mantis shrimp costume is outstanding.

Director Beth Wood keeps the action zipping along and gets all she can from the problematic script.

Capsule judgement: BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE)” has an important purpose with lofty goals.  Unfortunately, the play’s format and subject development does not satisfy the need to truly explain, “something is not working, people” and teach the “Bias Bubble”reality.

BREAKOUT SESSION (OR FROGORSE),” runs through March 14, 2020.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to