Positively explosive acting arises from the talent on stage at Howard University’s College of Arts & Sciences Division of Fine Arts Department of Theatre’s production of Breath, Boom. Written by Kia Corthron and Directed by Danielle Drakes, this strong-willed story chronicles the life of a hardened New York gang member, Prix, whose main focus in life is to create the perfect fireworks display. Spanning 14 years of her life from age 16 to 30, the story told in fragmented scenes covers majors episodes of her life from juvenile detention centers to prison and other major events, forcing her to recognize the relationships she has with her abusive step-father, estranged addict mother, and other important people in her life.
The acting from the HU students is superior, despite Corthron’s style of flashing through scenes without any real connectivity behind it. We often jump from one scene to the next without conclusions to the scenes or reasoning as to how the characters ended up where they are now. The women, and one male in the show, were breathing much boom and life into their characters – delving into the gritty depths of their lives and unearthing raw emotions that were truly, at times, harrowing to watch.
One of the most impressive aspects of this production was how authentically the fight choreography was executed. Fight Choreographer Matthew R. Wilson took stage violence to the next level flinging people around, with impeccably timed sound cues so that when a character’s head was slammed against a support pole you were convinced that the actor had actually been injured. With violence being such a large element in this production, Wilson’s work does not go unappreciated.
We see profiles of rough women who did not come from the lap of luxury in this performance. Comet (Tiana Thomas) a minor character shows us the darker side of ‘sisters’ in gang life in the opening scene. Thomas gives a convincing performance as she’s literally beaten to a pulp by members of her own gang after mouthing off at them. Her monologues are grounded in her characters integrity when she tries to hold her own against Prix later in the show and despite her limited appearances throughout the production she commands the attention of the audience when she addresses the gang leader.
There is a brightness to be found despite the circumstances in Malika (Birgundi Baker). The character has a warm and bubbly will that she expresses a bit nonsensically during the early scenes of the show, never letting the gang stuff drag her down too seriously. That exuberant energy is not lost when Baker transforms from Malika to Socks in act II, a prison inmate who has lost her mind. The spastic eruption of her madness, while laughable, is exhilarating, showcasing that same heightened quality of energy from the first act, only disfigured into insanity. Baker’s performance in both halves of the show add levity and reality to the situations she finds herself in.
Wearing the hat as the only male in the show Jeff Kirkman III tackles the difficult role of Jerome, the abusive step-father to Prix. Kirkman has very little interaction with Prix while his character is alive and most of his interactions come in ghost or dream-like encounters while Prix is incarcerated. His rough edge to the character is easily melted down when he pleads his case and it gives him a slight touch of humanity, making his monstrous crimes almost forgivable.
Opposite of Kirkman is Prix’s Mother (Mary Miller) who creates a multi-layered character with levels of fear and anxiety wrapped up internally that seep out into her dialogue. Miller’s character devolves into a junkie with all of the appropriate physical gestures to indicate her addictions. Playing a key component in the relationship between Prix’s dreams and Prix’s realities, Miller adds a heightened dynamic to the show with her subtle yet jittery presence on the stage.
And then there is Prix (Orisa Henderson). Much like the plans of her ultimate fireworks display, Henderson bottles emotions up inside, building and building until she cannot contain them all anymore and they explode like the big chrysanthemum boom shattering across the sky. She is cold and unreachable and this suits the character just fine, but she is not cut off from her emotions. If anything the reality of Henderson’s raw expressions move the audience to experience her plight on a deeply troubling level. In a scene with two girls (Ashley Baldwin and Naarai Jacobs) that beat the living daylights out of her, we see how things evolve and change from who she was as a hardened gang criminal to the woman she is trying to be. Henderson’s near-life ending experience with Jupiter (Stephanie Pounds) is harrowing and watching the two interact is the most moving moment in the play.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.