“Welcome to Ujima … where excellence is second nature.”
So said audience greeter Gary Earl Ross on the recent opening night of a play by Kia Corthron, “Breath, Boom.” Ross was right. A production at Ujima certainly strives for excellence, very often achieves it, and sometimes Lorna Hill’s acting company is willing to wait for the best, knowing it will surely come. Tomorrow night. Next week.
Such is the case of “Breath, Boom,” an intense story of mean streets and meaner inhabitants – mostly a cadre of young teenage sistahs on the prowl or in your face, a violent, chilling, territorial gang led by 16-year-old Prix (pronounced Pree), a sullen young miss who is mad at everybody, particularly her inept mother and her abusive stepfather. Self-preservation is her watchword. Diss her? Cross her? Trouble.
Kia Corthron is a 50-ish emerging black playwright. She has been called, in some circles, the “heir apparent” to the late and poetic voice of urban blacks in America, August Wilson. Her more recent plays – “Breath, Boom,” “Seeking the Genesis,” “Life by Asphyxiation,” “Wake Up, Lou Riser” and the acclaimed “A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick” – seem to be about “topics,” not so much about plot. They explore the death penalty, ecological dangers ignored, racial injustice, an array of social ills, family disintegration. These are big themes, causes complex, solutions blurred.
“Boom,” all about the cycle of violence in black neighborhoods – friends, foes and family alike – is a dozen years old now and still disturbs. But Corthron has said that “Audiences shouldn’t be able to predict what’s coming, scene to scene, sentence to sentence.” So, here we learn, in long, rambling monologues, about Prix and her love for fireworks, the holiday crowds imagined and waiting, taking a collective breath before the “boom,” then the aftermath, the impact, the bright colors drifting off into pastel trails. Her euphoric fantasies contrast sharply with her days and nights as an enforcer. Prix and her pyrotechnic dreams get her through dismal times at home and several stretches in prison. “Breath, Boom” follows Prix until she’s 30, paroled, older, wiser, broke, close to homeless.
There are other surprises. Cat, 15 and in jail, rants profanely about her life. In the middle of a brutal tale of the streets, she inexplicably and longingly rhapsodizes about her high school geometry class, the need for angles and order and line. Corthron again. Lyrical moments, a strange but spellbinding cadence, an almost musical rhythm surfacing in dire circumstances. David Mamet channeled.
Director Hill – with effective fight choreography by Steve Vaughn – gets strong performances from a very young cast. Shanntina Moore is an angry Prix, but in fantasyland she is also wonderful. Brianna Simmons, as Cat, gets your attention and keeps it. Notable others among a large ensemble include Vernia S. Garvin, Zoe Viola Scruggs, Paulo Silva and Dayatra Hassan. The set is bare except for the comings and goings of chairs and tables, the scenes many and sometimes the minutes between dialogue seem glacial. Momentum is often lost. But, the cast is remarkably mature. They’ll improve, tie it all together, discipline themselves. Excellence is just around the corner.
In truth, the fireworks metaphor wears thin: Life’s explosions, big and small, the many family detonations and certainly the disappointing misfires – we get the idea. Not a huge problem though in “Breath, Boom.” Kia Corthron makes few mistakes.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Drama presented through June 2 by Ujima Company at TheatreLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave. Tickets are $15-$25. For information, call 883-0380 or visit ujimatheatre.org.