Yaya DaCosta Johnson in New York Times Theatre Review (Aug 08)

April 13, 2010

Below you’ll find the theatre review of The First Breeze of Summer by the New York Times (By Ben Brantley), which includes a review of Cycle 3’s Yaya DaCosta Johnson. Here’s the text from the article:

Her teenage grandson, who has all the shortsightedness of youth, finds it hard to grasp that the gentle, Bible-quoting Lucretia Edwards was a seriously sensuous woman back in the day. But anyone who sees Leslie Uggams’s performance in the Signature Theater Company’s smooth revival of “The First Breeze of Summer,” Leslie Lee’s less-than-smooth drama from 1975, should have no difficulty connecting Lucretia’s disreputable past with her decorous present.

This is not just because this show, the opening entry in a season devoted to the work of the estimable Negro Ensemble Company, offers an onstage version of Lucretia’s younger self in the exquisite form of Yaya DaCosta, in a lovely New York debut. As played by Ms. Uggams, a mind-boggling 41 years after she became a Broadway star in “Hallelujah, Baby!,” Lucretia exudes a sweet grandmotherly serenity, for sure.

But you’re also aware of ripples of distraction within the calm, the kind that besiege old people toward the ends of their lives, when early memories speak loud and clear. And if you squint, you can see the beguiling and easily beguiled girl of long ago beneath the arthritic movements and matronly clothes.

Ms. Uggams’s subtle, contradiction-embracing portrayal provides a welcome ballast for a show that never fully weaves its disparate strands into whole cloth. Watching Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s appealingly acted production, which opened last night at the Peter Norton Space, you can understand why “First Breeze” won an Obie Award for its Off Broadway incarnation and a Tony nomination for best play for its subsequent, brief Broadway run. Its soft-spoken virtues remain clear. But three decades on, its flaws emerge in starker relief.

In an era when African-American plays tended to fiery and polemical confrontation, “First Breeze” was a return to the quieter domestic naturalism associated with “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s breakthrough Broadway drama of 1959. Part of what many critics found refreshing about “First Breeze” was that it didn’t scream its themes or spell out an agenda.

Tracing just a few days in the home of a small-town Pennsylvania family headed by Milton Edwards (the excellent Keith Randolph Smith), who runs his own plastering business and is Lucretia’s son, Mr. Lee shows big issues refracted through small, quotidian events. Ethnic oppression, economic struggle, the consolations of evangelical religion, sexual conflict, fine shades of racism within a single family: all of these turbulent elements are manifested obliquely in dinner-table conversations, casual business meetings, an after-church hymn-singing session, a surprise birthday party and a Scrabble game.

In counterpoint to this thick slice of life from the 1970s are Lucretia’s living memories, which take form in the guest room where she is staying, of her relationships with her three children’s different fathers: a railroad porter with dreams of self-improvement (Gilbert Owuor), the maverick son of a rich home where she works as a maid (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and a shy, strapping miner who hopes to become a minister (John Earl Jelks).

Without joining the dots in big, bold lines, Mr. Lee makes it clear how the past is the parent of the present, how the historic implications of Lucretia’s love affairs continue to resound in her children’s and grandchildren’s lives. If the flashbacks have a shimmer of the sudsiness associated with Barbara Taylor Bradford novels and Lifetime movies, Ms. DaCosta and the actors playing her lovers are admirably credible.

It’s in the present that “First Breeze” gets into trouble, despite Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s fluid and often astute direction. Mr. Lee is clearly aiming for the accelerating tension of a denial-plagued family in close quarters found in classics like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Glass Menagerie.” But in trying to provide chances for everyone in the Edwards clan to emerge as an individual, he winds up shortchanging all of them.

In addition to Lucretia’s troubled relationship with the past, “First Breeze” takes on the emerging Oedipal frictions between Milton and his older son, Nate (Brandon Dirden); the struggles of Milton’s younger son, the bookish and sensitive Lou (Jason Dirden, Brandon’s real-life brother), with his nascent sexuality; and the sibling resentments of Milton’s half-sister, Edna (Brenda Pressley). And that’s just for starters. It’s kind of a relief that Milton’s wife, Hattie (Marva Hicks), doesn’t seem to carry a lot of baggage of her own, although when she’s asked to play a central role in the highly emotional final scene you’re not prepared for it.

You’re not really prepared for any of the melodramatic family fireworks that erupt at the end, though Ms. Uggams does splendidly by them. The scene ties together a lot of separate threads that have been so slender as to be almost invisible. And you may find yourself thinking: “Wait a minute. This was all supposed to be about his relationship with her?”

The real problem with “First Breeze” is one of ambition: it takes on so much, it becomes cross-eyed in trying to fix its focus. (It feels all too appropriate that Michael Carnahan’s impeccably detailed multiroom set seems to sprawl right off the stage.) Fortunately, the double portrait of Lucretia provided by Ms. Uggams and Ms. DaCosta remains sharp. It deserves a less cumbersome frame.

THE FIRST BREEZE OF SUMMER

By Leslie Lee; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; original music and music direction, Bill Sims Jr.; sets, Michael Carnahan; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Marcus Doshi; sound, David Margolin Lawson; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Winnie Y. Lok; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Adam Bernstein; production manager, Paul Ziemer. Presented by the Signature Theater Company, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street, Clinton; (212) 244-7529. Through Sept. 28. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.

WITH: Harvy Blanks (Reverend Mosely), Yaya DaCosta (Lucretia), Sandra Daley (Gloria Townes), Crystal Anne Dickinson (Hope), Brandon Dirden (Nate Edwards), Jason Dirden (Lou Edwards), Quincy Dunn-Baker (Briton Woodward), Marva Hicks (Hattie), John Earl Jelks (Harper Edwards), Tuck Milligan (Joe Drake), Gilbert Owuor (Sam Green), Brenda Pressley (Aunt Edna), Keith Randolph Smith (Milton Edwards) and Leslie Uggams (Gremmar Edwards).

To learn more about Cycle 3 runner up, Yaya DaCosta, visit her bio page here.

(VIA NYT)

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