by Angela Carroll
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.
Breathe is a transformative work written and directed by Cleavon Meabon IV about the resilience of an African-American family trying to establish balance in the face of white violence. An announcer from TheARC stood before the sold out opening night crowd to offer a word of warning. “You will go through a range of emotions” he stated encouragingly. His warning was warranted. Expect to be uncomfortable. You may feel deep sadness. Rage. Joy. You may feel moved to clap along with classical spirituals and timeless blues. You will not leave the theater the way you came in.
Original musical arrangements (Meabon/Jarrett Roseborough), dynamic choreography (Ebony Ingram), beautiful costuming (Tyson Evans/Belinda Ligon/Luqman Salim/Sankara Xasha Ture/Solfistafunk) and a stellar collective of vocalists illuminate narratives about the lives of the Jones’, a family of sharecroppers and their community; The Midwives, The Blues People, The Revival and The Dancers. The Fruit, the tortured spirits of lynched men and women also share their stories and mark the transition of others who have been or will also be murdered. Each group contributes troubling and transcendent choreo-poems, scenes and songs about living in a free Black settlement in the 19th century south.
The sound of syncopated breathing and the hum of a fog machine echo in the dark theater. The lights rise on a modest setting — wooden fences, baskets filled with flowers and tree branches draped with limp nooses. A chorus of melodic singing ascends from the exits and grows louder as the full cast moves through the audience toward the stage. The cast exits and Myra “Jean” Jones (Kayla Dixon) and the Midwives—Selma (Alexis Smith), Gertie (Brittany Turner), Erma (Lady Davonne), Cissy (Catrina Brenae) and Devorah (Corisa Myers), are left singing. Myra, shrouded in a long white dress that clings to her full pregnant belly, walks to the center of the stage and recites a powerful monologue.
The monologue imagines a confrontation she would have with her rapist slave owner, who she images may be the father of her unborn child.. “My foundations lie in them fields. Centuries of royalty raped out of my DNA” Myra laments. Labor pains bring her out of the dream and into a birth room with the Midwives who sing for her to “Breathe.” Myra screams, “You invaded me…fix it! Fix me! I don’t belong to you.” Her husband Wilbur R. Jones, Sr. (Kofi) shocked and pained by the traumas his wife has suffered sits rocking in a corner with his knees clutched tightly to his chest. The performances of the cast in these scenes are exceptional and haunting.
The word “breathe” is repeatedly invoked by individuals and in chorus as a mantra, prayer and rally cry throughout the play. One immediately recalls Eric Garner’s last words—he uttered “I can’t breathe” eleven times through an illegal chokehold before he eventually died from the lack of oxygen to his brain. Meabon situates contemporary violence in relation to histories of violence that have literally and systemically suffocated black lives and livelihoods.
Breathe does not adhere to a strict linear storytelling style. Rather, the stories follow in the tradition of other notable nonlinear post-slavery chronicles like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, or Alvin Ailey’s Revelations that fluctuate between the contemporary world its protagonists inhabit and ethereal flashbacks.
The scene transitions from disturbing recollections by the Midwives and Myra about the days they were purchased on the auction block to an epic full cast church revival that overwhelms the stage with ecstatic dance and song. Meabon is strategic in his arrangement of narrative — every iteration of trauma is countered with exuberant examples of Black joy. The juxtaposition of innovative performance traditions with violent acts illustrates some of the brilliant mechanisms African-Americans have engaged to survive the recurrence of abhorrent violations.
The story eventually settles years later at the home of free Myra and Wilbur and their four children, Rayford Jones (Bryan Archibald), Marlyn “Jean” Jones (Nzingha Ashford), Rona “Jean” Jones (Courtney Harris), and Harold “Bud” Jones (CJ Harris). Rayford, the oldest son, puts on his best clothes to head out for a night on the town with his friends. He tells his family that he is headed to a juke joint to listen to blues, but he really intends to visit Madame Lovely’s, a speakeasy and whorehouse on the other side of town. The music transitions from spirituals to blues and wonderful dance sequences by The Blues People, Rayford and his friends, Madame Lovely (Dana Coleman), and her lingered girls. In the end, the narrative takes a tragic but expected turn.
Breathe is a poignant work that is heavy laden with outrageous cruelty, but if you can sit through the terrors, you will be greatly rewarded with a captivating production.
Breathe The Musical. Written & Directed by Cleavon Meabon, IV. Featuring: Kayla Dixon, Kofi, Bryan Archibald, Nzingha Ashford, Courtney Harris, CJ Harris, Alexis Smith, Brittany Turner, Lady Davonne, Brittany Caldwell, Catrina Brenae, Corisa Myers, Tiana Thomas, Harrison Walker, Thomas Shipp, Anthony Powell, Abram Smith, Latoya Lewis, Emilie Antonie, Shawnee Owens, Laura Nelson, Niko Gibbs, Lige Daniels, Tatyana Glannigan, Unknown, Dana Coleman, Jaleesa Sharp, Niko Gibbs, Harrison Walker, Anthony Powell, Barry Moton, Da’neisha Ligon, Tyra Jackson, Naila Brown, Carla Camargo, Lailah Horseford. Assistant Director: Nathaniel Shelton. Musical Director: Cleavon Meabon, IV. Music Composer: Cleavon Meabon, IV. Music Arranger: Cleavon Meabon, IV, Jarrett Roseborough. Music Producer: Robert Dixon, Jr. Choreographer: Ebony Ingram. Dane Captains: Jaleesa Sharp, Da’Neisha Ligon. Costuming: Tyson Evans, Belinda Ligon, Sankara Xasha Ture, Solfistafunk. Set Design: Tyson Evans, Darius Ligon. Prod. Manager: Demetrius Cole. Sound Design: Demonte Cross. Light Design: Jourdan Holden. Marketing/Graphic Design: SoulFree Enterprises. Photography: Cleavisions. Creative Direction: Cleavon Meabon, IV. Support Staff: Kevin Thorne, II. Associate Producers: Belinda Ligon, Chandra Gore, Alexis Smith, Shantelle Mosby. Produced by SoulFree Enterprises . Executive Producer: Tyson Evans .