September 13, 2008

Buoyed by "The First Breeze of Summer"

As I sat watching the Signature Theatre Company’s wonderful new production of The First Breeze of Summer, it occurred to me that part of what’s so wonderful about it is that the show will help remind a whole generation of theatergoers that Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson weren’t the only playwrights who wrote significant plays about black people. We old-timers know that during its heyday back in the late 1960s through the mid-‘80s, the Negro Ensemble Company produced a succession of incredible plays that not only presented black stories to mainstream audiences but gave actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, and Denzel Washington the kind of meaty roles that were seldom available to them elsewhere.

One of my closest friends worked for the company and so I got to see a lot of those shows. They ranged from what the director George Wolfe once called “last-mama-on-the-couch” family dramas to what-the-hell-was-that-about experimental works. I didn’t like them all but I loved seeing them and the opportunities they gave black artists. Now, Signature, which usually dedicates an entire season to the works of one playwright, is devoting this one to some of those NEC classics. And judging by
The First Breeze of Summer, the opening production in the series, the plays are still affecting and the acting talent pool is just as deep.

The First Breeze of Summer, set largely in 1977 with flashbacks to the '20s and '30s, weaves together the stories of three generations in a working class family struggling in various ways to get ahead in a white world and to be true to themselves. Leslie Uggams leads the 14-member cast as the family matriarch who has secrets in her past and she’s terrific. But so is everyone else. Times may have changed but good stage roles are still hard to come by for black actors and the cast members, hungry for the chance to show what they can do, sink their teeth into these.

Most impressive may be Yaya DaCosta who plays the grandmother as a young woman in the flashbacks that form nearly half of the play. DaCosta’s previous acting experience is limited to a Lifetime movie, a part of on a soap opera, a couple of pilots for cable channels and a season on the TV show “America’s Next Top Model” but she’s definitely more than a pretty face. The same is true of Brandon and Jason Dirden, the real-life brothers who bring nuanced passion to the roles of the brothers in the show. More familiar faces like Marva Hicks as their mother and Brenda Pressley as their aunt also deliver. And the whole thing is held together by the perceptive direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson. (Click here to see the “trailer” the company has posted on YouTube.)

I purposefully got tickets for one of the talk back nights. And I, along with the rest of those who stayed for the after-show discussion, was delighted when both Santiago-Hudson and the playwright Leslie Lee walked onstage to share their thoughts about the play. We were even more impressed when 12 of the 14 actors joined them. Lee declared this the definitive production of his semi-autobiographical play and he seemed both sincere and gratified when he said it.

Santiago-Hudson told funny stories about casting the play, including how he had worked with Jason Dirden in a play at the Kennedy Center and knew that he wanted him for the role of the naïve younger brother when he signed on to direct The Last Breeze of Summer. But, he says, Jason told him, “You should meet my brother, he’s the real actor in the family.” Reluctantly, Hudson agreed to see Brandon and then was so knocked out by him that he offered him the part of the older brother before the audition was over. Then, he said, Brandon told him, “You should meet my wife.” Sure enough, Crystal Anne Dickinson got the role of the older brother’s fiancée. “I’m sure glad they didn’t have an acting grandmother,” quipped Uggams.

Audiences seem happy about the whole thing. The theater was so full the night my sister, niece and I saw the show that people were literally sitting in the aisles. “If people are sitting on the steps, then you know the show is in demand,” the man behind me told his wife after they’d had climbed over the squatters to get to their seats.
In the old days, NEC audiences were notorious for being vocal with their enthusiasm and it made me both shudder with annoyance and smile in remembrance when a woman got so wrapped up in one moment in the play that she couldn’t resist shouting out her concern.

The show’s limited run has already been extended to Oct. 19 but it can’t go any longer because the next play in the series, Home, is scheduled to begin previews Nov. 11. I’m already planning to see it. But what I’m also hoping is that I’ll get the chance to see the terrific actors from The Last Breeze of Summer in other parts worthy of their talent.

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