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|A CurtainUp Review
by Les Gutman
The prevailing metaphor in Kia Corthron's intensely engaging new play is fireworks. We meet its central character, Prix (Yvette Ganier), as the teen-aged leader of a girl gang in the Bronx, already determinedly hardened and already well into an obsession with pyrotechnics. As a young girl, she fashioned displays out of pipe cleaners and pen lights; by the time Corthron has traced her life to age 28 -- "too old for a gang" -- she is displaying her handiwork with the real things, for a Fourth of July celebration.
Like the fireworks, Breath, Boom begins with the report of an explosion: a gang beating to teach one of its own "sistahs", Comet (Heather Alicia Simms), a lesson. Other flare-ups will soon follow in piercing the air: acts of territorialism, self-preservation or simply pent-up rage. Such actions, not surprisingly, also will be followed by reverberating echoes; and some detonations, too, will misfire. Unlike the fireworks, however, Breath, Boom affords no shades of pastel wafting from its vivid exhibitions.
The world Corthron paints for us is harsh: no varnish has been applied to soften it. Violence is the lingua franca; hopefulness is quickly and routinely quashed. Resentment rules Prix's relationships: of her father, for raping her at age five; of her mother (Caroline Stefanie Clay), for tolerating it and continuing to suffer domestic violence herself; of her gangsta girls, for not taking their mission seriously enough. Of the dozen or so years of her life that we see, a majority are spent in prison, either with the relative impunity of a teen or as an adult. Over and over, we are impressed by the cycle that is created: mothers who are role models for their daughters' days in prison; a post-prison "sentence" in which nothing but minimum wage jobs force these women back to the life for which they were just punished. We also see cross-generational effects, most pointedly when Prix becomes the target of an attack like the one she visited on Comet, only this time delivered by Comet's daughter ("I was at your christening"), Jupiter (Pascale Armand), now fourteen, and pregnant.
I have admired Kia Corthron's work since the very first play of hers that I reviewed, Seeking the Genesis (linked below as are her other plays we've reviewed). Her ability to convey the language and cadence of her characters puts her in a class almost by herself, and this is no more evident than in this play. If anything, this talent shows signs of a finer honing. Corthron is also to be applauded for tackling important subjects, especially since they are topics, and about people, that the theater (and film, and television, and every other sort of performance) regularly ignore. Previously, I've had one nagging criticism of Corthron's products: she overfills her plays with data, and seems to lack enough faith in her dramatic action to let it convince without lectures. I wish I could say say that Breath, Boom is devoid of these characteristics, but it is not. They are less plentiful, and the result is certainly more satisfying. The message of this piece is delivered quite organically, and its impact is quite substantial; now if only we could convince Ms. Corthron of that fact. Perhaps she is on her way, and perhaps this represents a maturation in her style; if so, I couldn't be more pleased.
In some ways, following new developments in the theater is like studying astrology: it has a lot to do with looking for parallel and intersecting ascendant phases. One can't help but notice in Breath, Boom the presence of director Marion McClinton. Mr. McClinton's star is rising now that he has directed the two August Wilson plays (Jitney and King Hedley II) that have graced New York stages this season. As Wilson rounds out his examination of the 20th Century, McClinton's presence here can't help but lead to the suggestion that Ms. Corthron is a leading candidate to be the new century's August Wilson. (McClinton also directed Ms. Corthron's Splash Hatch on the E Coming Down.) If, as I suspect, McClinton's astute, sympathetic but unapologetic direction has a good deal to do with the success of this play, I hope Ms. Corthron lets him guide her beautiful work out of the lecture hall and into the mainstream of powerful, meaningful theater where it deserves to be.
There are convincing performances throughout the acting ensemble, but none more so than that of Ms. Ganier. Breath, Boom is indeed Prix's story, and Ganier conveys it with a mind-boggling chill, letting her colleagues onstage steal the overt passion as her character remains what Comet calls it: "ice". Several of those other performances deserve special mention, even though many of them seem more like stars of scenes than parts of the larger play: Kalimi Baxter as Malika (and also as a prison crack addict, Socks); Rosalyn Coleman, as Angel, and the aforementioned Ms. Simms.
Michael Philippi's set design (heavy on graffiti and chain links) makes remarkable use of a modest stage, shifting numerous scenes effectively and efficiently. Ken Travis's sound design is smart, relying not just on the sounds we expect (e.g., Little Kim) but the stuff we don't (like the Billie Holliday standard, "God Bless the Child", which has a thrilling currency, in a much different key.)
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS BY KIA CORTHRON
Seeking the Genesis
Splash Hatch on the E Going Down
Urban Zulu Mambo