The First Deep Breath” opens with the preacher Albert Melvin Jones III (Tony Todd/Herb Newsome) painfully extolling the virtues of peace and mercy upon his congregation. During this penitential prayer of forgiveness, he mentions his son in jail and his beloved deceased daughter Diana. When he arrives home, we meet the bossy Aunt Pearl (Deanna Reed Thomas), prepping the family dinner, and insistent on one of the family members go out to purchase milk for the otherwise ‘dry’ mac and cheese. Tyree (Keith Wallace) and Abdul-Malik (Lee Edward Colston II) are enjoying watching a game of football on the couch, only to be interrupted by dad’s big announcement of getting approval for a new building and youth center for the church and also the youngest son AJ (Opa Adeyemo)’s scholarship for Bible college. Meanwhile, Mama (Ella Joyce) has Alzheimer’s, yet trying her best to keep her wits intact and her family unit together. All is not what it seems in this ‘house of cards’ soon to fall down. The set, designed by Michael Carnahan) is an intricate three level house, in Philadelphia, with an elaborate staircase, symbolic of all the ups and downs, triumphs and travails of one American family. Some amazing dialogue is heard, kudos to playwright Lee Edward Colston II, especially on the plight of the matriarch’s Alzheimer’s. Pastor Albert Melvin states, “When I look at her, it’s like I’m drowning.” The irony is that Mama (Joyce), is often quite lost and confused, while at other times, sharp as a tack, and in one most poignant scene, during the family’s Thanksgiving dinner, she is the truth sayer, telling it exactly like it is, and pinpointing each family member’s character, and mourning the death of her beloved daughter Diana, by abruptly pulling off the tablecloth and all the bountiful food upon it, onto the floor, revealing the messy state of the family unit, as it unravels before her knowing eyes. Candace Thomas so credibly portrays the surviving twin sister Dee-Dee, trying earnestly to heal her inner child, while understanding her family members. Yet, she is so insecure and unsure herself at times, she can’t help but lash out at others.
This show, written by Colston, and directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, displays their tremendous genius and a knack for a brilliant ensemble narrative. A standout scene is when AJ rehearses his dance audition, to the beat of Albert Jr. playing bongo drums, in a poetic, ethereal music and dance sequence. It is a play of humans coming together, at the holiday season, emotions still raw over the loss of their daughter and sister, with the golden urn of ashes present on the desk next to flowers and her picture. As the plot thickens, and the family dinner finally takes place, the darker themes of hurt, shame, dysfunction, sibling rivalry, competition, unfaithfulness, all come to the forefront. Colston, with his shrewd ability to commingle satire, poetry, and dark humor into one concise entity, can be likened to an August Wilson of modern time. The characters, in particular, Albert Melvin Jr. and AJ, seem to unwittingly dance around their own guilt and shame, a prevalent theme throughout the story. The play is filled with such sharp juxtapositions of darkness and light; holiday festivity and mourning; tragedy and comedy; and the cast members leap from one range of emotion to another, effortlessly. All actors in the ensemble are so convincing in their roles and the dialogue, with rich gems of wisdom, such as “I gave you my legacy, my namesake, my strength … and you broke it and shattered it into a thousand pieces.” “Hurt and shame have been in this family forever… until someone breathes it out.” And, “every peaceful breath, from the first deep breath to the last shallow breath…transported to places poetry speaks of.”
The play’s ultimate message is of life’s fickle and fleeting nature, and how every diverse person needs to be seen, and every unique voice needs to be heard, loud and clear.
Through March 5th