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THEATER REVIEW: ‘The First Breeze of Summer’

FS-Play-2499

Lucretia Edwards was quite a woman.

She still is, actually, as an elderly grandmother in Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” As the matriarch of an extended family and a pillar in her church, she exudes a sense of stability and morality, particularly to her grandsons.

But grandmothers were young once. One of the intriguing aspects of this play, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre, is that the past and present march next to each other, giving us a view of Lucretia that acknowledges her resolve, independence and sexuality. As the complex narrative dips into the lives of her family — all taking place within a few days of her birthday — we get specific views of the African-American experience from economic, religious and sociological standpoints.

This production, directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is a hybrid of sorts. It’s part staged reading, with actors sitting in chairs with scripts in front of them. It’s also partly staged, with various scenes performed by off-script actors in fully blocked, or acted out, moments. There are no sets. Costumes are minimal, with actors wearing variations of contemporary basic black.

The result is awkward — and somewhat disappointing.

There are parts of the show that do shine, especially as we burrow into a series of flashbacks featuring the young Lucretia (an assured Breayre S. Tender) interacting with the three very different men who fathered her children. In scenes with a smooth-talking young man named Sam (Joshua Slack), a manipulative white man (Dillon Morgan, in a fine performance) and a coal miner-turned-preacher (Myles Bullock, a stellar standout), we get a textured sense of Lucretia’s past.

I don’t always wholeheartedly agree with Ellis and Tender’s choices when it comes to the role — I think this version of young Lucretia doesn’t fully acknowledge her strength and resolve and instead plays up too much her more sensual side — but it’s an emphatic performance.

There also moments in the present-day scenes that work well. Offering a skilled portrayal is Ryan Woods as Lucretia’s older grandson, Nate, who argues with his father, Milton (DeAndre L. Jean-Pierre), about the direction of the family construction business.

Overall, however, the staged-reading approach is problematic. Part of it is the inconsistency with which the approach is used. While the flashbacks are all fully staged, the scenes in present day are sometimes fully blocked and sometimes not. In a pivotal scene late in the show between Lou (Sam Morgan, Jr.), the younger grandson, and Lucretia as grandmother (Deziree Dukes, who struggles to convincingly play someone so much older), for example, much of the emotional impact is lost with the concert-style staging.

Lost, too, is a sense of the time period in which all this occurs. Ellis notes the era as “contemporary” in the program, which is awkward. “The First Breeze of Summer” was written in 1975, and setting the present-day scenes of the play almost 40 years later than that — or even in a “timeless” period — feels artificial. The playwright’s take on race relations, economics and homosexuality is meant, in my view, to be anchored in a specific time period, and to remove that context is odd. This applies to the flashbacks as well. For Lucretia to survive as a black single mother in the 1920s and 1930s — that’s when I’m guessing she was young — adds another layer to her remarkable story. Without period costumes and a scenic design that helps distinguish between the two time periods in the play, the script — which already wasn’t as cohesive as it could have been — has its impact diluted.

The question remains why Fresno State’s theater department needed to put up an awkward production like this. (In an interview in advance of the show, Ellis pointed to budgetary related cutbacks that have hobbled the department as a primary reason for the concert-style staging.) The department has full-time faculty members teaching scenic, costume and lighting/sound design. And the university seems to have gotten past its biggest budget woes of recent years. I don’t understand.

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Pictured: Breayre S. Tender, left, and Dillon Morgan in “The First Breeze of Summer.”

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘The First Breeze of Summer’"

jamie says:

I agree with your comments. There is no reason this couldn’t have been fully staged. It is a beautiful play set in a specific period. Bringing it forward would ruin the innocence of the character’s attitudes towards race and sexuality and calling it “timeless” is a cop-out. It’s great to see a terrific play by and African-American writer in Fresno. I just wish it was done more effectively.

Bernett says:

If you ever open the play, and turn to the third page, the author Leslie Lee set the time period to be contemporary! It does not say 1975 anywhere except for when the play was first presented. So on the contrary, I feel as though Thomas Ellis did exactly what he needed to do to make the play extremely entertaining to watch. I also felt as though Young Lucretia played the character exactly how the words of the script pronounce her to be. If you have ever read the play, you would know that Lucretia is a very sensual young lady when it comes to men; as she later states in the play as Gremmar, that she just wanted these men to LOVE her. And in the mind set of Lucretia that love called for whatever these men (Sam & Briton) wanted from her. Which in both cases was SEX. Hints why she got pregnant by both men. More importantly Sam Green, who is a man in his late 20′s who has relations with a 17 year old girl. His intentions were not to play hopscotch with Lucretia. Lucretia’s relations with these men caused her to mature faster than expected; which by the time Harper came around, all she desired was the sexual comfort, or just comfort in general from a man. Hints why she begins to sooth Harper by telling him he is a man and has feelings when he feels as though he should be damned for having sexual relations with him. Harper calls Lucretia a Whore for a reason, not just because he wants to be mean. So all in all I feel as though Ellis and Ms. Tender did a magnificent Job portraying her desire for a mans comfort!

jamie says:

When a playwright writes contemporary, s/he means the play is set in a contemporary time period. Do you have any evidence that Mr. Lee intends the play to always be moved to whatever time period when the play is being produced? While this play could be moved to 2013, it is more resonant in 1975 for the very reason you state, women in Lucretia’s position were more likely to seek out older men than they would be in today’s world when these things are more accepted. It’s fine to disagree with Donald’s review but please don’t lecture him on what he knows or doesn’t know about African American theatre. Critics do not need to read a play to review it. They comment on what is presented to them on the stage. I’ve read the play and saw this version, but that doesn’t make me more qualified than Donald to comment on it. I’m glad Fresno State lets Whit-Ellis put on African American plays. I just wish this was a better production. If you thought this was a great production, bully for you. No need to bully Donald who bends over backwards, sometimes too much for my taste, to support all of the arts in Fresno.

Bernett says:

From your review, I call tell that you clearly have not read the play. I can also tell that you have no background knowledge or any knowledge for that matter about African American History, and definitely no knowledge at all about African American Theatre. If you did, you would know that during the projected time period of Lucretia’s life, a lot of young women sought out comfort in older men, and would conceive children with no father figure to help in raising the child.

Kristin C says:

Bernett, a play is not meant to be read, it is meant to be watched. There should be no expectation that a reviewer would have read the play, or that any audience member should be well-versed in any specific genre of theater to attend a show. If we expected our audiences to read every play before attending, the houses would be empty indeed.

Stephen says:

Donald is FAR too professional to respond to Bernett, but I’m not.

I don’t see, Bernett, anywhere in Donald’s review where he makes a statement, comment, or writes anything having to do with Lucretia’s choice of many different fathers for her children.

Some of Donald’s comments have to do with the time period chosen for the performance (modern day) vs 1975, and with the staging of the production, but I see nothing else that would spur your comment, Bernett.

I also heavily doubt that Mr. Munro has “no knowledge at all about African American Theatre.” Donald has seen and reviewed more plays than anyone else in town, including probably hundreds of plays written by, performed by, and about African Americans.

So Bernett, I don’t understand where your comment derives, or why you’ve taken such a stance, but of course it’s your right to do so.

Brad Myers says:

I”ve always had a great regard for Donald Munro’s reactions to theatre in the Central Valley. Even if I don’t always agree with them, his comments come from an informed and insightful perspective. As a director in our community, I am usually hesitant to respond to a review. However, as someone on the inside of the workings of the Fresno State Theatre Arts Department, the last paragraph of this review needs a response. Perhaps I can help Mr. Munro understand.

In the past five years, the Theatre Arts Department has lost two staff positions in the scene shop and our only staff position in lighting/sound. Add to that, budget restraints have led to severe reductions in the funding available to produce plays. These cutbacks have radically impacted our ability to provide the same output of productions that we were capable of a decade ago. To believe otherwise, is to suggest that the staff who previously held the eliminated positions did not have a profound impact on the quality and scope of our University Theatre season. Yes, the economy in California is beginning to turn around, but it is naive to think that all of the financial challenges to our department and the university have instantly gone away. The workings of the state government funding machine move slowly indeed. Our staff and budgets are more limited than ever.
The challenge put before the Theatre faculty was to either do fewer productions, or do the same number of productions with cutbacks in design elements in certain shows. It was in the best interest of our Acting Program to strive to do the latter, allowing for the same number of roles for our students as in previous seasons.
I do not want to debate whether this particular play was the best selection for this format. However, I must voice enormous appreciation to our scenic design and lighting/sound design faculty for the energy and commitment they have invested in our productions. They work harder than any of the rest of us.
We face many challenges in our efforts to restore the staffing and funding for our department. The university is BEGINNING to recover from the biggest budget woes, however, the impact of the cutbacks will be with our department and the university for many years to come.
Brad Myers
Professor of Theatre
CSU, Fresno

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