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A CurtainUp Review
The First Breeze of Summer
With Additional Thoughts
I’m giving you my opinion – all right? — Nate

I didn’t ask you for any opinion! I know what you’re calling me! — Milton

Oh let’s just forget it – forget it! I’m trying to tell you how I feel! If you don’t appreciate it then. . . — Nate

I don’t want to know how you feel! — Milton
 Leslie Uggams in  The First Breeze of Summer
Leslie Uggams in The First Breeze of Summer
(Photo: Richard Termine)
The First Breeze of Summer playwright Leslie Lee was seated in the back row at the press preview I attended at the Signature Theater Company. He was busy taking notes, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak to him at intermission. Although I didn’t see the 1975 Tony Award-nominated play when it moved to the Palace Theater following its run at the Negro Ensemble Theater, I was familiar with three of Lee’s subsequent plays — Hannah Davis (1987), The Rabbit’s Foot (1989), Black Eagles (1990)— when they were produced by the Tony award-winning (for Best Regional Theater) Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, N.J. which has an illustrious history of presenting plays about the African-American experience in America. To my question But why have we not seen more revivals of this lauded play? Lee’s answer to my question as to why we have not seen more revivals of this lauded play: "Probably because it has fourteen characters."

There are, indeed, fourteen characters to keep track of in this unwieldy but intriguing Obie Award-winning family drama that seems at times to be as purposefully disjointed as it is meandering meaningful. For a while it is even downright perplexing as two different stories are being dramatized. But somehow, under the splendid direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the play's disparate sections are fused together with seamless simplicity.

Most of the characters in the play are members of one family. Except for numerous flash backs to various locations, all the action takes place in a comfortable middle-class home in a small town north of Philadelphia. Michael Carnanhan’s sprawling set, that includes a front porch, a bedroom, a living room with a piano, and a dining area, is framed by a suggestion of the home’s exterior with climbing vines and the top of a tree — very impressive.

Although this closely-knit African-American family is secured by the stern, practical policies of Milton Edwards, the family patriarch (the excellent Keith Randolph Smith), it is bonded by his seventy year-old mother Gremmar Edwards (Leslie Uggams) whose deep religious faith and fortitude appear as an inspiring and unifying force. Uggams, who has been lauded for her musical (Hallelujah, Baby!) and dramatic roles (King Hedley II), suffers from failing health for much of the play, but ignites with emotional fireworks in a climactic scene.

Up to a point there is harmony exemplified by a family ritual: a family friend Reverend Mosely (Harvy Blanks) apparently visits on occasion and leads everyone in singing gospel songs and making testimonials. At first the family issues at hand seem to be less critical than can generally sustain a drama. Milton has provided a decent living as a plasterer, getting contracts for jobs by low-bidding his white competitors. While he has convinced his 20-something son Nate (Brandon Dirden) to drop out of college and join him in the family business, he has had less success manipulating his teenaged son Lou (Jason Dirden), who is determined to go to college and pursue a career in science. (Note that Brandon and Jason are real brothers who are playing brothers whose fraternal chemistry cannot be denied).

The conflicts that punctuate their lives during the course of one weekend don’t necessarily suggest more strife than the ones that face most families. Milton’s conciliatory wife Hattie (Marva Hicks) seems to take it all in stride. However, the sexually naïve Lou is overly concerned about getting ill while on a date. Nate, unlike his girlfriend Hope (a very vivacious Crystal Anne Dickinson), is unable to get into the spirit of his family’s religious rapture. And Milton has to deal with the pleas from Gloria (Sandra Daley) whose husband Milton has recently been fired. But how does this fit easily into the imposing history that keeps infiltrating?

Gremmar’s stubbornly vivid and possibly empowering memories of her life as a young woman materialize periodically within the confines of her bedroom. The delicately beautiful YaYa DaCosta plays Gremmar’s young self Lucretia who is forced to survive after being deserted by three lovers, each of whom leave her pregnant. Lucretia’s ordeals begin as a young pregnant teenager whose lover (Gilbert Owuor), feels he must leave town when he is fired from his job as a railroad porter for standing up to his white boss for an injustice. Lucretia takes a job as a serving girl to a wealthy white family only to be seduced, abandoned and again pregnant by Briton (Quincy Dunn-Baker) their restless and reckless adopted son. But what are we to make of Lucretia’s continuing fall from grace, particularly when she acts as the provocateur in her subsequent seduction of a spineless, uptight minister-in-training?

What we begin to surmise during the course of the play is the way in which each generation copes with the hand that is dealt, bravely, unapologetically and without regrets. As this family’s lives mesh, they vibrate with ethical contradictions and moral uncertainties, but are eventually valued for their resilience. Gremmar’s daughter Aunt Edna (Brenda Pressley) makes light of having a white father. But Lou feels betrayed by his Gremmar who he feels has not only lied to him but has attempted to make him see how his ambition may be his way of separating himself from his heritage.

"Don’t make me no more than what I was, son. . . Don’t fault me for my feelings. . . That’s what you’re doing" Gremmar shouts to Lou on her deathbed. The play forces us to think about how the possibly misguided choices made by others in the past may have also been the catalysts that have brought us and each new generation to a better place. Lee’s compelling play predates the August Wilson canon that embraced the African-American experience through the decades, and I wonder if it didn’t serve as an inspiration to him.

The First Breeze of Summer is the first production of Signature Theatre Company’s season celebrating the historic Negro Ensemble Company. Coming up next: Home by Sam-Art Williams 11/11/08 to 01/04/09; Zooman and the Sign by Charles Fuller 03/03/09 to 04/26/09; Day of Absence (Staged Reading) by Douglas Turner Ward (no date set).

Simon Saltzman ably honed in on The First Breeze of Summer's excellence despite some of its excesses. I'll therefore limit some thoughts prompted by seeing the play and reading the Signature Edition's interview with the playwrigh.

Within the context of the Signature's mission of devoting each season to one playwright, Lee's play is a fine choice for embarking on a somewhat different 2008-09 season — a season that instead of focusing on the work of a single playwright, puts the spotlight on a theater company with its own mission: To give African-American playwrights and actors a place to showcase their work.

I'm old enough to nurture fond remembrances of some of the Negro Ensemble Company's productions. Like Simon, I didn't see First Breeze of Summer either Off or On Broadway, so it was a treat to have a chance to see this old-fashioned semi-autobiographical family melodrama with its big cast, and finely detailed sprawling set brought back. I can't blame Mr. Lee for regretting the absence of a Theater Company to act as a launching pad for emerging African-American theatrical talent. However, there's a half full/half empty cup side to this.

The unlikelihood of realistic, big cast plays being produced is an economic fact of life affecting theater people, no matter what the color of their skin. However, the success of August: Osage County, a kitchen sink family drama with just one actor less than First Breeze, and has proved that getting such a play produced, and becoming a popular and critical success, is not a completely impossible dream.

Granted, neither playwright Letts or the family in August are African-Americans, but the work of African-American playwrights and actors have become increasingly mainstreamed and attended by more diverse audiences. And so, while a nationally endowed theater remains even more elusive than a national health care plan, African-American playwrights, directors, and performers have become a much more integral part of both on and off Broadway and regional theater.

When Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun was revived in 2004 it was on Broadway. August Wilson, another African-American playwright who, like Hansberry, died way too soon, had his extraordinary play cycle produced at major venues. African American playwrights, like all thespians have made good use of the economic viability of the solo play -- Breeze director Ruben Santiago-Hudson did well with Lackawanna Blues and last season Thurgood had a solid run on Broadway with Lawrence Fishburne.

Also fitting the full glass view is the increased acceptance of color-blind casting —to wit last season's revival of The Country Girl, Come Back Little Sheba along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an all black cast. Granted none of these were by an African-American playwright, but both were a chance for African-American actors to break down the great racial divide.

What about young playwrights wanting to step into the shoes of people like Lee? Well, there too there's light at the end of the tunnel.

This summer I saw a wonderful new play called Broke-ology by a 29-year-old young African American named Nathan Louis Jackson at the prestigious Williamstown Theatre. It was the best new play I saw during the entire Berkshire season and I would bet that perennial bottom dollar that it will not only have a future life in New York and elsewhere, but under the auspices of a well-established and well attended organizations.

Actually, The First Breeze of Summer and this new play (Brokeology Review ) have much in common. Both are family plays, that combine universal issues with those of particular revelance to people of color. Here's hoping that the Signature Theater will continue its invaluable work long enough to devote a season to new, steadily working African-American playwrights like Mr. Randolph.
The First Breeze of Summer
By Leslie Lee
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Cast: Harvy Blanks (Reverend Mosely), Yaya DaCosta (Lucretia), Sandra Daley (Gloria Townes), Crystal Anne Dickinson (Hope), Brandon Dirden (Nate Edwards), Jason Dirden (Lou Edwards), Quincy Dunn-Baker (Briton Woodward), Marva Hicks (Hattie), John Earl Jelks (Harper Edwards), Tuck Milligan (Joe Drake), Gilbert Owuor (Sam Green), Brenda Pressley (Aunt Edna), Keith Randolph Smith (Milton Edwards) and Leslie Uggams (Gremmar Edwards)..
Original Music and Music Direction: Bill Sims, Jr.
Set Design: Michael Carnahan
Costume Design: Karen Perry
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: David Margolin Lawson
Fight Direction: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Winnie Y. Lok Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes including intermission
Signature Theatre Company at the Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenue) (212) – 244 – 7529.
From 8/05/08; Opened 08/21/08 Ends 09/28/08--exteded to 10/05/08
Through The Signature Ticket Initiative, all regularly-priced single tickets ($65) are underwritten and are available for $20 every performance for the entire season (this applies to the show’s scheduled run —if a show extends, the $20 does not apply during the extension). Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/19/08
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