"The First Breeze of Summer” playwright Leslie Lee was seated in the back row at the press preview I attended at the Signature Theater Company. He was busy taking notes, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak to him at intermission. Although I didn’t see the 1975 Tony Award-nominated play when it moved to the Palace Theater following its run at the Negro Ensemble Theater, I was familiar with three of Lee’s subsequent plays — “Hannah Davis” (1987), “The Rabbit’s Foot” (1989), and “Black Eagles” (1990) — when they were produced by the Tony award-winning (for Best Regional Theater) Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, which has an illustrious history of presenting plays about the African-American experience in America. Lee’s answer when I questioned him as to why we have not seen more revivals of this lauded play: “Probably because it has 14 characters.”
There are, indeed, 14 characters to keep track of in this unwieldy but intriguing Obie Award-winning family drama that seems at times to be as purposefully disjointed as it is meanderingly meaningful. For a while it is even downright perplexing as two different stories are being dramatized. But somehow, under the splendid direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the play’s disparate sections are fused together with seamless simplicity.
Most of the characters in the play are members of one family. Except for numerous flashbacks to various locations, all the action takes place in a comfortable middle-class home in a small town north of Philadelphia. Michael Carnanhan’s sprawling set, which includes a front porch, a bedroom, a living room with a piano, and a dining area, is framed by a suggestion of the home’s exterior with climbing vines and the top of a tree — very impressive.
Although this closely-knit African-American family is secured by the stern, practical policies of Milton Edwards, the family patriarch (the excellent Keith Randolph Smith), it is bonded by his 70-year-old mother, Gremmar Edwards (Leslie Uggams), whose deep religious faith and fortitude appear as an inspiring and unifying force. Uggams, who has been lauded for her musical (“Hallelujah, Baby!”) and dramatic roles (“King Hedley II”), suffers from failing health for much of the play, but ignites with emotional fireworks in a climactic scene.
Up to a point there is harmony exemplified by a family ritual: a family friend, Reverend Mosely (Harvy Blanks), apparently visits on occasion and leads everyone in singing gospel songs and making testimonials. At first the family issues at hand seem to be less critical than can generally sustain a drama. Milton has provided a decent living as a plasterer, getting contracts for jobs by low-bidding his white competitors. While he has convinced his 20-something son, Nate (Brandon Dirden), to drop out of college and join him in the family business, he has had less success manipulating his teenaged son, Lou (Jason Dirden), who is determined to go to college and pursue a career in science. (Note that Brandon and Jason are real brothers who are playing brothers whose fraternal chemistry cannot be denied.)
The conflicts that punctuate their lives during the course of one weekend don’t necessarily suggest more strife than the ones that face most families. Milton’s conciliatory wife, Hattie (Marva Hicks), seems to take it all in stride. However, the sexually naive Lou is overly concerned about getting ill while on a date. Nate, unlike his girlfriend, Hope (a very vivacious Crystal Anne Dickinson), is unable to get into the spirit of his family’s religious rapture. And Milton has to deal with the pleas from Gloria (Sandra Daley), whose husband Milton has recently fired. But how does this fit easily into the imposing history that keeps infiltrating?
Gremmar’s stubbornly vivid and possibly empowering memories of her life as a young woman materialize periodically within the confines of her bedroom. The delicately beautiful Yaya DaCosta plays Gremmar’s young self, Lucretia, who is forced to survive after being deserted by three lovers, each of whom leave her pregnant. Lucretia’s ordeals begin as a young pregnant teenager whose lover (Gilbert Owuor), feels he must leave town when he is fired from his job as a railroad porter for standing up to his white boss for an injustice. Lucretia takes a job as a serving girl to a wealthy white family only to be seduced, abandoned, and again pregnant by Briton (Quincy Dunn-Baker), their restless and reckless adopted son. But what are we to make of Lucretia’s continuing fall from grace, particularly when she acts as the provocateur in her subsequent seduction of a spineless, uptight minister-in-training?
What we begin to surmise during the course of the play is the way in which each generation copes with the hand that is dealt, bravely, unapologetically, and without regrets. As this family’s lives mesh, they vibrate with ethical contradictions and moral uncertainties, but are eventually valued for their resilience. Gremmar’s daughter, Aunt Edna (Brenda Pressley), makes light of having a white father. But Lou feels betrayed by his Gremmar, whom he feels has not only lied to him but has attempted to make him see how his ambition may be his way of separating himself from his heritage.
“Don’t make me no more than what I was, son. . . Don’t fault me for my feelings. . . That’s what you’re doing,” Gremmar shouts to Lou on her deathbed. The play forces us to think about how the possibly misguided choices made by others in the past may have also been the catalysts that have brought us and each new generation to a better place. Lee’s compelling play predates the August Wilson canon that embraced the African-American experience through the decades, and I wonder if it didn’t serve as an inspiration to him. **
“The First Breeze of Summer,” through Sunday, September 28, the Signature Theatre Company, Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street. 212-244-7529.