The cover for the program and much of the advertising for Kia Corthron's "Breath, Boom", this year's African-American play at the Huntington, has local actress, Ramona Alexander displaying attitude. Which highlights one of the risks inherent in this production. A chronicle of 14 years in the hard life of teenage girl gangster grown into a hardened woman would probably be deemed exploitative if written by a white male dramatist. Corthron's rising reputation as an effective Black female playwright may deflect most such criticism, but a central question remains. What is the purpose of one more demonstration of the sad fact that growing up in a crime-ridden neighborhood on public assistance in a violent family situation probably dooms a young person to a miserable life, if not an early death? Is a violent saga about girl gangs more than titillation for the dwindling audience for live theatre? It is perhaps significant that this expose of life on the edge in the NYC projects was commissioned by the Royal Court in London where such American street crime must have seemed either exotic, or perhaps as bad as the situation in London black slums.
The current production was restaged by Michael John Garces from his Yale Rep version. The show uses a similar set by Adam Stockhausen-- whose work was seen at the Huntington last spring for "Ten Unknowns"-- with Kellee Stewart reviving the role of Prix she played in New Haven. The presentation has energy, theatricality, and moments of strong acting. The drama is sporadic, presenting vignettes of 14 years in the life of its anti-heroine, from her teenage leadership of a "girl gang" to working at Burger King on parole at almost thirty. The cast ranges from good to superb. But when all the fireworks die down, there's no new insight or real drama. The result is mildly depressing, despite an attempt to create a moment of uplift at the end.
Part of the problem lies in how well Stewart plays the role of Prix, an utter sociopath. Even if her vicious behavior is the result of her hard upbringing, there's no soul there to relate to. The character's obsession with fireworks displays--one of Corthron's personal passions--seems part of her pathology, rather than some redeeming artistic urge. The author's research, and contact with such young women doesn't translate into bringing them to life onstage except as self-defeating attitudes.
The rest of the young cast, some local, plays their roles as written with gusto and not much depth. The two mature parts, Edwin Lee Gibson as Jerome, Prix's feckless stepfather, who gets shot--between scenes--by Jacqui Parker, Prix's unnamed Mother are played with more depth. Jerome even gets to come back from the dead to taunt Prix for the second act opening. This scene is effective if somewhat arch. Parker finds an arc to her role, but the material in her scenes borders on the bathetic. Perhaps if the author had given her a name some sympathy might have slipped in.
Alexander's major scene is as the next generation gang leader Jupiter, the daughter of one of Prix crew, having her deposed rival beaten. The level of physical violence onstage is unique, and possibly gratuitous. Of the original crew, Angel, played by Zabryna Guevara shows the most range, going from an air-head teen gangster, to keeping a scrapbook of how all their friends die, to a tough protective mother determined to raise her kids right. The comic relief of the gang is hefty Dwandra Nickole's Comet, Jupiter's mother. And in prison, where we see Prix in several scenes, there's Tawanna Benbow's Cat, a fledgling prostitute whose major complaint is she's only allowed five outfits and later Jan Leslie Harding's Denise, a po'white from the old project with blond dreadlocks and a black attitude. These personalities all just bounce off Prix's icy soullessness, and so make interesting acting exercises rather than real parts.
Stockhausen's set is the most changeable thing in the show. It starts out as a two level structure over an alley, then in rolls Prix's room in the project. When it rolls out, panels shift and the whole space becomes the prison, to which the action returns more than once. But at the end, the stage first becomes a section of Prospect Park below a full sized billboard, and then through back projection, a collage of the Empire State Building. The set, well lit by Kirk Bookman, dominates the show, which is hustled along by Martin Desjardins original music and sound collages. Karen Perry's costumes are believable, though Prix's lack of style seems counterintuitive and doesn't help mark the passage of time. In retrospect, the script might be more effective in a smaller theater and a much simpler production. If the probable movie is made, it will likely have more graphic violence and even less soul.
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