by Leslie Lee
Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Featuring Leslie Uggams
Signature Theatre Company / 555 West 42nd Street / (212) 244-7529

Reviewed by David Spencer

This season, the Signature Theatre, rather than devoting itself to the works of a single author, is attempting something novel: revivals of another theatre company's "greatest hits"—specifically the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). It's a more than worthy endeavor.
     I only wish the first production in this series had been a better play than Leslie Lee's The First Breeze of Summer.

     That it has moments of cathartic appeal (especially, or so it would seem the night I attended, for Afro American audiences) is undeniable, especially in its depiction of everyday life for a middle class black family in Philadelphia, circa 1977, with glimpses of surviving in the business climate (dad [Keith Randolph Smith] is a private construction contractor, and underbids to keep his white clients), keeping religion at the center of their lives (a neighborhood preacher [Harvey Blanks] makes house calls for private revival services), and thinking toward the future, as the youngest son [Jason Dirden] eyes college and medical school.

      And punctuating all this are vignettes involving Gremmer (read: grandmother) Edwards, the much-loved matriarch of the clan (Leslie Uggams). From the beginning, it's clearly foreshadowed that death will visit her before the play ends, and, perhaps fittingly, aspects of her life flash (or as far as we as observers are concerned, flashback) before her eyes as she remembers her younger self (Yaya Dacosta) and the three men in her life—none of them husbands, one of them white—who fathered her three children (of which only two survive).

     The little day-to-day dramas that inform getting through the challenges and getting along with each other are written and, under the firm, steady direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, performed with snapshot verisimilitude (the revival come-to-Jesus meetin' is especially well done and has an infectious energy), but there isn't much cumulative build to them; and the climactic explosion of a moral issue between Grammer and her college bound grandson, who had no appreciable tension between them earlier, nor any particular communication regarding the touchpoint issue, seems ill-prepared and unearned.

      And young Grammer's relationships with her lovers follow predictable, familiar tropes.

      Of course this begs the question: if your intention, even in part, is to create a representative picture of a class of people, how do you not deliver familiar tropes? If the events onstage were exceptional, the purpose of the dramatization would be defeated.

      I don't have a boilerplate answer to such a paradox, I only know that finding the one that applies to the specific situation is the dramatist's art—or should be. In terms of showing black American family life, its dividing lines of generation and did Lorraine Hansbury do it? How did August Wilson? The "how" is of course fodder for reviews of their work...but what matters here is, they each found a way.

      That said, I'd be remiss not to report that, the night I attended the play, the audience was more than receptive. But it's hard to know if that was simply fondness for the cast and the detail work, or genuine investment in the play. My companion of the evening—who, for various reasons I won't explicate here, had every reason to be immersed in both the play and its subject matter—seemed as attentive and invested as everyone else in the audience; and then totally surprised me, once we were a few blocks away from the theatre, by confessing that she'd found the play badly dramatized and rather dull.
     In such moments, a drama critic—even one like me, who fully honors the audience response, and won't negate it, even at the risk of diluting my own position—must step back from the response and simply be true to his own soul. Especially after my companion's remarks joltingly echoed my own feelings, despite any observable evidence to the contrary, I can only maintain that I don't think The First Breeze of Summer is the NEC's best foot forward. Or, given the retrospective nature of this Signature season, backward...

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