Three decades, depending on your perspective, can be either a very short or an infinitely long time. Leslie Lee’s play The First Breeze of Summer received its New York premiere in 1975, a mere 33 years ago. And in that little time span, everything about America, about African-American life, about New York, and about the theater has changed so extensively that this minute blip on the radar screen of time seems like several aeons. Performed as plays are today, a work that still makes perfect sense on the page seems practically Paleolithic, or maybe Mesozoic. It’s as if the conventional living/dining room where most of Lee’s play takes place had suddenly become populated by dinosaurs—which were not put there, like the ones in Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, by a writer intending to be funny.
It’s less the playwright’s fault than the world’s. First produced Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company and then moved to Broadway for a brief six-week run, The First Breeze of Summer was part of a process intended both to alter and to survey the African-American past. Now revived as the first item in Signature Theatre’s season of plays originally produced by the NEC, it’s become a part of that past itself, another item to be surveyed as an instance of black America’s long historical process. “We ain’t where we’re going,” civil-rights leaders used to say in the 1960s, “but we sure ain’t where we were.” The slogan, which might be the unspoken motto of Lee’s play, could easily be draped over the proscenium arch to frame Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s new production. And the production, sad to say, could stand a little such contextualizing.
The First Breeze of Summer deals with the conflicts among three generations of a black family in Philadelphia, making it part of the same genre of densely layered family plays as August: Osage County, with the difference that black families like Lee’s Edwards clan have the additional element of ethnic identity always present. The focal figures in First Breeze, at opposite ends of the age spectrum, are respectable, pious, goodness-spreading “Gremmar” Edwards (Leslie Uggams) and Lou (Jason Dirden), the younger of her two teenage grandsons. Lou, the bright one whom everybody expects to go on to college and who wants to become a doctor, is struggling with the guilty perception that he doesn’t like being black. Additionally, he struggles with his sexual identity (producing further racially linked conflicts) and with his father’s tyrannical insistence that he continue to work in the family building-trades business instead of getting a laboratory job that could help his future career.
While Lou struggles to sort out his crises in the present, his “Gremmar” relives her youthful struggles in flashback, as a sweet-natured Southern girl, Lucretia (Yaya Dacosta), who means to follow the path of respectability, but finds herself tempted away from it by a succession of lovers, each of whom deserts her in one way or another—but not before leaving her pregnant. In the present, her two surviving children, Lou’s obdurately self-righteous father, Milton (Keith Randolph Smith), and his sassily cynical sister, Edna (Brenda Pressley), spat with each other continually in a kind of ongoing reminder of the conflicts Gremmar has been striving to leave buried in the past. One of their spats, while the family celebrates her birthday, precipitates what becomes a climactic struggle for both Gremmar and her grandson—a climactic struggle between them, in fact, for when the past story spills out, Lou suddenly perceives the beloved grandmother whose virtues he’s been striving to emulate as the embodiment of all the stereotypical “black” behavior that afflicts him with self-hatred. In his diatribes, he uses the n-word to a degree that supplied considerably more dramatic shock in the era before hip-hop.
This, of course, isn’t all. Lou and Gremmar’s internal battles, alternately claiming stage time, are like the two ends of a dramatic seesaw; the fulcrum at the center is the “respectable” family’s equivocal position, caught between the conflicting pressures of white authority and black solidarity. Each of Lucretia’s three love affairs, in the flashbacks, dramatizes a different facet of this teetering placement, in which to go too far one way is to lose out with the other. Milton, similarly, has to balance, in his building-trades work, the demands of a white contractor who expects him to do the best job for less, and those of a black employee who is unreliable, but whose family is no less black and no less needy because of that. Though overwritten—it rings with the orotundity of a time when talk and not action ruled the American stage—The First Breeze of Summer is thickly packed with thought-provoking moments. It suggests a rich, gooey, old-fashioned birthday cake that has been made with unsweetened chocolate: The look is comforting, but the taste is startlingly bitter.
In performance, regrettably, it comes off more muddled than startling. Santiago-Hudson, who’s demonstrated first-class intelligence in other situations, both as director and as actor, here seems to have been overanxious about the play’s talkiness. As a result, he grabs urgently at the visceral element in the characters, pushing too many scenes toward loudness and crowding, while often losing focus on the central figures who should be catching our interest. Uggams’s gentle-hearted portrait nearly gets lost in the hubbub; Smith, a powerful presence whose best moments display his skill at quietude, spends far too much of his time bellowing. Marva Hicks, as Milton’s long-suffering wife, gives the evening’s best performance simply by refusing to overdo.
But in part, as noted, the fault is history’s, not the artists’. When Lee’s play was first produced, “Black is beautiful” was a newly formulated concept; till then, what black Americans had striven for was a dignity equal to (or surpassing) that which whites had claimed as their exclusive property. Once the property was no longer exclusive, there was no need to claim it: Black having become beautiful, blacks could be unbeautiful with impunity, like everybody else. The First Breeze of Summer, sketchily, maps this dialectic; time, having filled in a few more lines, has made Lee’s play, too, a point on that map.