“Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.”—James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket
There’s a scene in Lee Edward Colston II’s The First Deep Breath, now in a bone-shaking world premiere at Victory Gardens, where the aunt and primary caretaker of a Black family in Philadelphia recites everything she’s making for their Thanksgiving feast. It’s an exhaustive but tantalizing menu, much like the play itself, which puts all the family secrets on the table in a heap of plot twists before they finally (literally) crash on the floor.
Like Baldwin’s great bildungsroman Go Tell It on the Mountain, Colston’s play traces the psychological effects the children of a fearsome patriarch, Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III (David Alan Anderson), suffer in the shadow of his wrath and righteousness. Youngest son AJ (Patrick Agada) is supposed to follow his father into the religious life but would secretly rather be a dancer. Daughter Dee-Dee (Melanie Loren), whose twin died in a drunk-driving accident, struggles to be seen on her own terms, not as a ghost of her dead sister, whose urn occupies a morbid place of honor in the dining room. And Abdul-Malik, formerly Albert Melvin Jones IV (Clinton Lowe), has just returned from prison after serving time for a rape he claims he didn’t commit. Add in mother Ruth (Celeste Williams), who’s fading deeper into the fog of Alzheimer’s, and her sister, Pearl (Deanna Reed-Foster), whose caregiving crosses boundaries from time to time, and it’s an entire stew of revelations about sexuality, grief, race, and shame. And that’s just for starters.
The play carries echoes of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County—not least in the unexpected yet regular flashes of acidic and earthy wit Colston seeds throughout the script. Like August, Colston’s play also takes three and a half hours (with two intermissions) to reach its explosive conclusion. Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging lets the story be as big as it wants to be while also pulling it back for moments of tender connection.
But unlike the sexually arid world of Letts’s troubled Weston clan, Colston’s play draws the same connections between spiritual and sexual freedom that Baldwin embodied in his work. The performances are virtuosic across the board, from Reed-Foster’s take-no-prisoners demands for respect to Anderson’s terrifying rage as a man whose hard-as-nails demeanor can only partially hide that he is wounded to the soul. The tragedy is that he cannot find a way out of the darkness without damaging those around him. The revelation is that his children find the courage to sing, shout, and testify as they seek their own light. v