Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Breath, Boom"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"BREATH, BOOM"

by Kia Corthron

directed by Michael John Garcés

Prix … Kellee Stewart
Angel … Zabryna Guevara
Malika … Carla J. Hargrove
Comet … Dwandra Nickole
Jerome … Edwin Lee Gibson
Mother … Jacqui Parker
Cat … Tawanna Benbow
Fuego … Katrina Toshiko
Shondra … Chinasa Ogbuagu
Denise … Jan Leslie Harding
Girl … Tawanna Benbow
Pepper … Chinasa Ogbuagu
Jupiter … Ramona Alexander
Jo … Carla J. Hargrove
Jo’s Friend … Katrina Toshiko

With THE BLUE DEMON, the Huntington proved itself an enchanter. With Kia Corthron’s BREATH, BOOM, the Huntington’s eagerness to turn social worker swamps Ms. Corthron’s play about black girl gangs in New York. If Pearl Cleage’s CHAIN is an aria and John Henry Redwood’s NO NIGGERS, NO JEWS, NO DOGS is a chamber piece, the Huntington production of BREATH, BOOM is Grand Opera itself.

Based on Ms. Corthron’s research and teaching girls on Riker’s Island, BREATH, BOOM traces the life of Prix (pronounced ‘Pree’) from ages 16 to 30: raised by a neglectful mother and an abusive stepfather, Prix becomes, over the years, a gang leader, a convict, a drug dealer and finally, too old to be part of the gang scene. Her sole comfort is fireworks --- watching them, drawing them and, finally, constructing them. Ms. Corthron’s script has its flaws --- despite its ultra-Realism, the dead stepfather pops up as a taunting ghost; Prix’s street-poetry monologues grind the show to a halt; the lyrical shift to an outdoor picnic evokes the “Somewhere” ballet from WEST SIDE STORY, and --- as a drama --- BREATH, BOOM ends where it should begin, with the older-but-no-wiser Prix finally reaching out to her mother, who served time herself and has since contracted AIDS. This mother-daughter thread is the buried heart of BREATH, BOOM and is slighted in favor of Ms. Corthron’s depiction of gang life: the girls carry razor blades in their mouths as ready weapons; wanting out of a gang means getting yourself killed; the older Prix is beaten in prison, led by the daughter of a childhood friend --- even more startling are the flashes of street humor, as matter-of-fact as the horrors (i.e., Prix’s cousin Angel sports a photo album, composed of family and friends, guilty or innocent, killed in the line of fire). Though Ms. Corthron presents Prix as much a victim as a victimizer, she keeps an arm’s distance from her creation --- I’ll admit, anyone who goads a fellow cellmate into hanging herself is hard to love --- but if a playwright is cold to his/her subject matter, why should the audience warm up to it? To be honest, I ended up not caring about Prix --- she more than gives as well as gets --- she and her peers are little more than statistics. Ms. Corthron has broken the ground and planted the seed on the subject of black girl gangs; it may take another playwright to branch it out.

And the Huntington slams the audience, beginning with its Overture --- sounds of subway trains, police sirens, etc. blasting through the speakers --- you know: the “Ghetto” sound (faint sounds of traffic would have made that lonely dumpster far more ominous) and if you thought the lights and echoes of Boston Theatre Works’ COYOTE ON A FENCE were over-the-top, guess again. Could light and sound designers Kirk Bookman and Martin Desjardins have studied Artaud’s theory of assaulting the audience’s senses to shake them out of their complacency? If so, it worked (sort of): on the night I attended, a few patrons hurried up the aisle at intermission and never returned --- no doubt they’ll creep back for SPRINGTIME FOR HENRY. (Mr. Bookman did up come with a nice fireworks display --- minus the fireworks.)

Aside from the Wang and the other import houses, the Huntington stage is a barn, as high as it is wide --- to fill it from floor to flies risks dwarfing the actors and thus the action (as was the case of B.U.’s recent production of AMADEUS; David P. Gordon wisely shrunk the proscenium with his designs for THE BLUE DEMON). For BREATH, BOOM, Adam Stockhausen has designed Big, all steel and graffiti --- an urban Island of Lost Girls; paradoxically, his overwhelming prisons and sordid domestic interiors have a terrible enchantment about them: safe in our seats, we can study, fascinated, how the Other Half lives. Between the Messrs. Gordon, Bookman and Desjardins, this is as Grand Opera-ish as it gets --- but if BREATH, BOOM had been presented next door in B.U.’s Studio 210, sans sets and special effects, and with the same cast in your face, it might have been shattering.

To continue the G.O. motif, director Michael John Garcés has directed Big as well, all gut emotions, grand gestures --- to help fill in the towering sets? I don’t believe even the toughest of girl gangs behave THIS tough 24/7, and the actresses’ belting only distances the audience even further. Rick Sordelet’s fight choreography is just that ­ choreography, as safe and harmless as a puppet show (Comet’s trashing would be more effective if it were concentrated rather than flopping about all over the stage; when Prix gets her head dunked in a toilet, it comes out bone dry). I’m not saying violence must be graphically depicted onstage, but if a playwright puts it into a script --- and here, Ms. Corthron’s violence is justified --- then the powers that be must try to carry it out convincingly; otherwise, more distancing.

May Kellee Stewart (Prix) forgive me when I say that her loveliest moment is her curtain call where she smiles and becomes a pretty, friendly young woman. Up until then, her Prix, though excellent in declamation, is a tundra, frozen and blank --- there no fire under the ice. Since Prix ages from 16 to 30, any actress playing her will be more convincing at beginning or end; Ms. Stewart is believable at 16. Though she is only in four brief scenes, Jacqui Parker sketches in a memorable (nameless) Mother: warm, battered, maker of mistakes, and believably human. Dwandra Nickole is far too old as the sweet, stupid Comet, but she has a near-hilarious bit waiting for a three-ring phone call; and Zabryna Guevara is sassy as Angel, becoming a Tough-Love mother by play’s end. Chinasa Ogbuagu, who was excellent in the title role of B.U.’s production of VENUS, is memorable as two minor inmates; I hope she will stay in our area once she graduates. The dazzler of the show is Ramona Alexander as Jupiter, Comet’s daughter. I had seen Ms. Alexander in last year’s deconstructed UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (Coyote Theatre) where she was a comical lab-coated voice of reason; here, she was decades younger, as feral and deadly as a cat out of hell --- the next generation. You’ll remember Ms. Alexander --- not only for her impact, but because that’s her photo on the Huntington posters and programs.

"Breath, Boom" (7 March-6 April)
HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 266-0800

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