Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Liz Lauren.
If Lee Edward Colston II’s The First Deep Breath is not at or near the top of every Chicago theatre critic’s end of the year top shows list, well, they are simply wrong. This is an utterly remarkable show in every conceivable way. Featuring galvanic performances from a hugely talented cast, Colston’s play uses the lives of a single Black family in Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which secrets, lies, religion and sexuality can easily unravel the bonds holding us together. In the bitter but often simply hilarious story of the Jones family, he manages to weave a tenuous tapestry that includes LGBTQ+ rights, toxic masculinity, extra-marital affairs, self-righteous religious people, the railroading of Black men into prison, alcoholism, abuse, and even human trafficking before it is finished.
This nearly four-hour play—don’t be put off by that, for under the nimble direction of Steve H. Broadnax III the show moves quickly, but do plan for it—introduces us to the family of Pastor Albert Jones (David Alan Anderson), founder of the Mother Bethel Baptist Church, a rapidly growing congregation in Germantown, Philadelphia, that is about to grow into a mega-church. The Jones family has been reeling from a series of painful events. Matriarch Ruth Jones (Celeste Williams) is suffering from advancing Alzheimer’s; oldest son Albert IV (Clinton Lowe), who is now known as Abdul-Malik, has been in prison for six years and his father not only hates him for his crime but blames him for the death of daughter Diana, twin sister of Dee-Dee (Melanie Loren), who has been killed in a drunken car crash. This terrible trifecta has taken a toll on the family, which also includes youngest son AJ (Patrick Agada) and Ruth’s sister Pearl (Deanna Reed-Foster), as well as pseudo family members Tyree (Jalen Gilbert), a good friend of Abdul-Malik who in his absence has taken AJ under his wing, and Dee-Dee’s boyfriend and secret fiancé Leslie (Gregory Fenner). Now, with Abdul-Malik’s return home and the holidays coming up, Colston’s well-crafted and precariously balanced powderkeg is ready to explode.
For all of the pain in its center, though, this play is anything but morose. Colston has the rhythms of family life down perfectly, and that includes the million or so in-jokes and outrageous moments that arise when siblings, friends, and parents are together. Even though the audience is completely aware of the tensions building in the Jones household, they laugh hysterically at the wonderful wordplay, unexpected entrances, and maybe even the relief that this family’s insanity is not their own.
All of the actors are outstanding, but most of the show-stealing moments come from Reed-Foster, whose Aunt Pearl doesn’t ever shy from expressing her immoderate and often uproarious thoughts and opinions while she tries to act as surrogate mother for this clan and caretaker for her sister. Reed-Foster’s third act monologue is one of the finest acting moments of the year, made even more so by its contrast to much of what she has shown us earlier in the play. Her performance throughout is so marvelous, though, that she often doesn’t have to say a word to control the stage. Her castmates all have their shining moments as well, especially Anderson as Pastor Jones tries to maintain control of his public life while denying the splintering of his home life. Williams too, captivates in a brilliant portrayal of a woman with the increasing dementia and mood swings inherent with her disease. Broadnax’s entire ensemble here is incredible; in them we see a group of flawed people trying very hard to live their best lives despite everything that has gone wrong. It’s what makes this long play well worth seeing.
The family’s inevitable meltdown is well-earned, too, and each of the three acts of the play contains powerful scenes that bond the family as they tear it apart. This play vaults Colston into the pantheon of writers like August Wilson who show us life with all of its joys, laughter, pain, and limitations. He is a playwright we will hear much more from.
The First Deep Breath is now playing at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago, IL, until Dec 22. The show runs 3:45; there are two intermissions. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.