Review: ‘Breathe: The Musical’ at THEARC

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Breathe is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed gospel musical that celebrates black resilience even as it revisits the traumas endured by the black family in a nation built on slavery. At times soaringly transcendent in its evocation of hope and faith, at times searingly explicit in its depiction of anguish and grief, Breathe in performance is a rapturous ceremony of shared healing.

The work is the heartchild of Cleavon Meabon IV, a 25-year-old wunderkind from Atlanta by way of Howard University, who wrote and directed the show. Also composed and arranged music for it. Also music-directed it. Also shot promotional photography and designed graphics for it. (This may be off topic for a review, but Meabon has achieved with Breathe one of the best theater marketing campaigns I have seen in DC.)

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

Breathe is breathtakingly ambitious in form and substance. It has a cast of 25. Its ten scenes are sewn together in a patchwork of richly poetic riffs, received and rewritten spirituals, liturgical dance, dramatic episodes, and interludes of homespun comedy. The promise made on the show’s website is kept:

A great deal of American history has attempted to take the breaths away from African Americans through rape, lynching, Jim Crow laws, KKK terror, injustice, and police brutality.

BREATHE: The Musical is the story of the Jones family, a post-slavery family of sharecroppers in the early to mid 1900’s as they seek refuge from America’s violent racial climate.

Supremacy has begot rape, false allegations, lynch threats, and eventually death to the family. With the help of 5 timeless Midwives, the ghosts of historic lynching victims, and a vibrant close-knit community, they navigate through the everyday trials of the era to reformation and anti-lynch laws.

The show’s two acts have overwhelming emotional reach and resonance.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

It begins powerfully with a chorus of midwives singing “Hold On Just a Little While Longer” to support and succor a pregnant Myra Jones (Kayla Dixon), who is having flashbacks of her rape by the Massa. One of the midwives, Selma (Alexis Smith), has a speech that cuts into a collective wound.

SELMA: Her voice shakes like shackles trying to birth a baby she already bereaves. She chewed cotton roots hoping not to get stuck with a rapist seed, hoping not to aid in developing a new breed. We don’t like havin’ massa’s babies.

Maebon’s script is chockful of knockout poetry like that. And it often speaks truths with surpassing understanding. For instance, after Myra’s baby is born and the Massa is evidently implicated, the Massa’s white wife retaliates by accusing Myra’s husband, Wilbur (Kofi), of raping her. And Myra delivers a monolog as if addressing the Massa directly.

MYRA: She lie. She a liar.
She just want your attention.
And for the sake of me and mine, give it to her.
She knows her power.
The alleged rape of a white woman is a death threat to
every black man within 50 miles of her lying tongue.
Ropes chase him—latch on to his neck like leaches
draining his blood all because her revenge is confused.
She don’t know she’s really after you.

Just let that moment sink in: In the space of eight tight lines, Maebon has Myra articulate her insight into a privileged white woman who is nonetheless oppressed by a white man but throttles her anger at the Massa and shunts it to a black man instead.

That’s some powerful dramatic writing. And the musical has only begun.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

The story unfolds in a series of scenes with such iconic settings as a laundry, a tent revival, a Sunday dinner, a funeral, a rally, a hair salon. There’s a unit set of moss- and foliage-covered stonework and woodwork designed by Tyson Evans and Darius Ligon. Scene changes are effected by actors’ rearrangement of set pieces, with lighting designed by Jourdan Holden and sound designed by Demont Cross. The choreopoem feel of the show is well realized in Ebony Ingram’s choreography. And a costuming team of four (Tyson Evans, Belinda Ligon, Sankara Xasha Tube, Solfistafunk) do wonders with fabrics, textures, and embellishments to create a relatable sense of the period.

The gifted poetry is so succinct and imagistic, it does not always track as storytelling, however; so the narrative and the who’s who can at times be hard to follow. For future productions (which there must be), a dramaturg might help fix that, because the language as written is amazing and the story arc is epic. Despite that minor issue, the emotional underpinnings of the performance were always palpable—especially in the music and the singing, which with every musical number re-stole the show. The choral work was simply stunning in purity and passion. And given the great song list (including such spirituals as “Jesus, My All, to Heaven Is Gone,” “Way Over in Beulah Lan’,”  “By and By,” “City of Heaven”), a cast recording would be fitting.

Breathe: The Musical opening night photo by Kevin Thompson.

Were Breathe not so artfully crafted, some trigger warnings about its content might be in order. There is a lynching (handled symbolically). The Klan shows up (as stick puppets). Myra has a dream in which she sees “The Fruits”—the corpses of hanging victims (“creepy, but not scary” says a stage direction). There is Myra’s rape (described viscerally). But the genius of Breathe is that it is always in touch with the emotions it elicits. It always knows the pulse of the bloodlines of the people who share the history it recalls.

For instance, early in the show, there is a scene when the Midwives flash back to being sold at auction. One by one they tell their terrible story. And this eloquent sisterhood struggles to find a way forward.

“Ain’t nothing wrong with having flashbacks,” says Selma. “We all get them.”

“Yes there is,” says Devorah (Corisa Myers). “That’s the problem now. We can’t
focus what is for us because we won’t leave what was alone.”

Breathe doesn’t leave alone what was. Breathe goes there. Breathe evokes and distills the collective trauma of an extended black family whose scars reopen still. But Breathe’s intent to help heal from that shared history is ever present and ever vigilant. Breathe takes a deep breath and moves the family on. And it’s a beautiful thing. 

Breathe: The Musical marketing image and photo by Cleavon Meabon IV (Cleavisions).

Cast
The Jones Family: 
Kayla Dixon (Myra “Jean” Jones), Kofi (Wilbur R. Jones Sr.), Bryan Archibald (Rayford Jones Jr.), Nzingha Ashford (Marilyn “Jean” Jones), Courtney Harris Rona “Jean” Jones, CJ Harris (Harold “Bud” Jones)
The Midwives: Alexis Smith (Selma), Brittany Turner (Gertie), Lady Davonne (Erma), Brittany Caldwell (Erma u/s), Catrina  Brenae (Cissy), Corisa Myers (Devorah), Tiana Thomas (Devorah u/s)
The Fruits: Harrison Walker (Thomas Shipp), Anthony Powell (Abram Smith), Latoya Lewis (Emilie Antoinie), Shawnee Owens (Laura Nelson), Niko Gibbs (Lige Daniels), Tatayana Flannigan (Unknown)
The Blues People:  Dana Coleman (Madam Lovely), Jaleesa Sharp (Cindy), Niko Gibbs (Bart, Lisa’s Child), Harrison Walker (Claude), Anthony  Powell (Rod)
The Revival: Barry Moton (Rev. Jenkins)
The Dancers: Jaleesa Sharp, Da’Neisha Ligon, Tyra Jackson, Naila Brown, Carla Camargo, Lailah Horsford

Breathe: The Musical marketing image and photo by Cleavon Meabon IV (Cleavisions).

Production Team
Writer and Director:  Cleavon Meabon IV
Executive Producer: Tyson Evans
Musical Director: Cleavon Meabon IV
Music Composer: Cleavon Meabon IV
Music Arranger: Cleavon Meabon IV, Jarrett Roseborough IV
Assistant Director: Nathaniel Shelton
Associate Producers: Belinda Ligon, Chandra Gore, Alexis Smith, Shantelle Mosby
Music Lyrics: Cleavon Meabon IV, Tyson Evans
Music Producer: Robert Dixon Jr.
Choreographer: Ebony Ingram
Dance Captains: Jaleesa Sharp, Da’Neisha Ligon
Costuming: Tyson Evans, Belinda Ligon, Luqman Salim, Sankara Xasha Tube, Solfistafunk
Set Design: Tyson Evans, Darius Ligon
Production Manager: Demetrius Cole
Sound Designer: Demonte Cross
Light Designer: Jourdan Holden

Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including one intermission.

Breathe: The Musical plays through March 24, 2015, at SoulFree Enterprises performing at THEARC West Blackbox, 1901 Mississippi Avenue SE, Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.