Theater for a different demographic


Theatergoers are usually older, upper-middle class white people. It may be unfortunate, but it’s still true. And it’s a function not just of ticket prices, but of the scenes, themes and subjects contained in most mainstream productions. Don’t worry, I’m not collecting signatures for Diversity in Theater: Action Now!, but I do think that could be a subtitle of the Huntington Theatre Company’s Breath, Boom.

Breath, directed by Michael John Garc├ęs, tells the absorbing story of an all-female inner-city gang. A realistic portrayal, it’s educational without being at all patronizing or preachy. It challenges some of the conventions of theater, without getting crazy. It’s a creative combination of art and social justice work, and I loved it.

Main character Prix (pronounced “pree,” played by Kellee Stewart) is 16 when she’s first shown orchestrating a beating in a Bronx alleyway. After a confrontation with her mother’s abusive boyfriend, we begin to understand how violence pervades Prix’s life, and why she so fiercely guards her independence. Prix’s intelligence and leadership skills are apparent, but her economic and familial circumstances have led her to use her talents toward drug deals and drive-by shootings.

Drawings on her bedroom walls reveal Prix’s fascination with fireworks. They serve as a metaphor for the passionate potential of Prix and her peers. Over the course of the show, she observes what gang membership, drug addiction, motherhood and urban violence have done to and for her “sistas” from the street. She goes in and out of jail, but only near the end of the show, at age 30, does she finally leave the gang. Her departure doesn’t feel like a victory, though, and a new generation of tough adolescent females are entering the gang life as Prix exits.

Breath, Boom, which premiered in 2000 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, could be read as an indictment of our society’s neglect of poor minority communities, or as a cautionary tale for peer-pressure-vulnerable urban youth. It does not celebrate or morally condone the gang members’ actions, but it makes clear some of the reasons behind their choices. In addition to addressing race and class issues, the show has a powerful feminist bent: This gang is entirely female, and the women are portrayed as complex individuals with their own wants and needs beyond the desire to form romantic relationships. The only male character is Jerome (Edwin Lee Gibson), the terrifying predator who haunts Prix even after her mother has done him in. Occasional explicit monologues highlight such matters as the lack of meaningful vocational opportunities in the women’s prison and the inequitable jail sentences given to women who kill men, but these are never long or heavy-handed enough to turn the play into a propaganda piece.

The acting in this production is excellent, with especially nuanced performances from Chinasa Ogbuagu (Shondra), Dwandra Nickole (Comet), and Jacqui Parker (Mother). The fireworks motif created an especially challenging task for lighting designer Kirk Bookman, and scenery designer Adam Stockhausen was responsible for such unusual backdrops as a graffiti-covered dumpster, but their successful efforts make the show even more realistic and compelling. At scene changes, the music (composed by Martin Desjardins) tends toward hip-hop, and the white folks moving chunks of set wear the uniforms of correctional officers.

Playwright Kia Corthron describes her style of dialogue as “hyperrealism.” In practice, this means that the actors’ lines often sound realistic at first, but offbeat upon further reflection, forcing the listener to deconstruct their meaning. The characters’ mode of speech also blends a measure of standard English diction with elements of urban dialect and slang. Corthron’s 16 critically acclaimed plays have explored a variety of controversial social issues, but have focused particularly on the relationship between race and violence in America.

The Huntington Theatre Company is a well-established theatrical organization with plenty of upper-middle-class white subscribers and sponsorship from such corporate giants as AT&T. However, it is also making a concerted and generous effort to bring people from outside its traditional base to see Breath, Boom. Attendees under 35 can “pay their age,” while $14 tickets are available through a variety of community groups. On press night, a large contingent of African-American teenagers were seated near me, and I realized that in years of theatergoing I had never before seen that particular demographic well represented in a dramatic audience (partially because my high school’s tracking system created nearly-segregated assemblies). There are also “student matinee” performances, so progressive teachers can bring high schoolers to the show as a field trip.

Breath, Boom is a great opportunity to create a dialogue with urban youth about the pressures they face and the dangers of gang involvement. It’s also a great opportunity for everyone else to learn about social issues while attending an atypical play. If you think of the theater as boring and irrelevant, or of gang members as dumb thugs, this show begs to hold your attention for a couple of hours and gently change your mind.

Breath, Boom runs until April 6.

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