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The First Breeze of Summer

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Leslie Uggams and Yaya DaCosta.
Photo by Richard Termine

Generations jumble and traditions are skewed in Leslie Lee's play The First Breeze of Summer, which Signature Theatre Company is reviving at Peter Norton Space as the first entry in its season-long celebration of the Negro Ensemble Company. These happenings boldly outline the intricate and frustrating underpinnings of family life, but what most shines through this 1970s reclamation of kitchen-sink drama is the understanding that understanding is invariably more difficult than acceptance.

All the members of the African-American Edwards family, who live in a small town north of Philadelphia, continually grapple with notions of who they were, who they are, and who they're pretending to be. The play, which premiered Off-Broadway and then had but a short Broadway run in 1975, is constantly battling with itself to be more than a listless survey of the Edwards' lives and lies. But in Ruben Santiago-Hudson's arresting production, it's a powerful, balanced examination of the wounds that time causes rather than heals.

The most frequently cut but the least-scarred is the clan's matriarch, Gremmar (Leslie Uggams), who maintains authority despite her advanced age and her declining faculties. Lately affected by crippling chest pains, she's become more reliant on her son Milton (Keith Randolph Smith) and his family to care for her. But before her heart gives out, she wants to make sure they know how to use theirs - something they've been in danger of ignoring.

A number of disagreements simmer between Milton and his sons Nate and Lou (played by real-life brothers Brandon and Jason Dirden): Nate, who works at his father's construction company, rejects the firm's constant underbidding to win jobs from white clients; Lou wants no part of the business, preferring instead to start down the path toward medical school. Lou, however, has fully bought into the Edwards faith (Milton is a deacon at a soul-rattling church), while Nate openly disdains religion as being of his elders' era.

Brandon and Jason Dirden
Photo by Richard Termine

But as is frequently the case, no one is who he or she first appears. Nate is not completely defiant of the old ways, nor Lou completely willing to embrace the new (especially when racial identity is involved); and Milton proves he's capable of learning new tricks to round out his worldview. Gremmar, on the other hand, has built her life on forgiving and especially forgetting, though she's still haunted by a quartet of ghosts from her past: a pretty young woman named Lucretia (Yaya DaCosta) and her three affairs (Gilbert Owuor, Quincy Dunn-Baker, and John Earl Jelks), whose links to the Edwardses may be less tenuous than it first appears.

The First Breeze of Summer is weakest when obsessed with this mystery. Though the performances, especially from Dunn-Baker as a privileged plantation owner and Jelks as a preacher on the rise, are among the play's most vital, Lucretia's dalliances and their repercussions spend more time coruscated down through the decades than they need to hit their quota of plot points. Though the scenes overlap with the present-day Edwards's actions, they're more overlaid on the structure than securely woven into it.

Truly central, and much stronger, are the conflicts between young and old that explore how shifting values and mistranslated messages obscure our heritages and purposes. The first act tidily organizes the story's myriad slow-burning confrontations and climaxes in a rollicking living-room church service that vividly contexualizes everyone; the second act sees things through to full explosion. Santiago-Hudson finds all the heat in the characters' inherent combustibility, and focuses your attention on the compelling questions of why some secrets should be revealed and why others are better kept.

The performances have been carefully crafted to reflect the wide spectrum of post-Civil Rights viewpoints. The Dirdens bracingly evoke two different kinds of revolutionaries, while Smith constructs a blistering tower of perspective around the clear-eyed Milton, keeping hold of both his industriousness and his weariness. Marva Hicks finds a chic modernity in Milton's wife, Hattie, and Brenda Pressley brings a steely comic resolve to the busybody aunt who never quite knows when to keep her mouth shut.

Only Uggams seems miscast: She brings an enveloping warmth and sensuality to Gremmar, crucial for articulating her background and her impact on those around her, but her natural beauty and preternaturally youthful radiance mock her old-age makeup, wig, and costume (by Karen Perry) - it's not possible to accept Uggams as tottering about on her last legs.

That somewhat tarnishes The First Breeze of Summer, which thrives on documenting how history's withering effects created everyone onstage. Uggams becomes, then, another way of bridging the generation gap: a living embodiment of the play's moving message that the end is too late to really learn about the people we're closest to - and to learn to love them for who they are rather than who we wish they were.

The First Breeze of Summer
Through September 28
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
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