First Breeze of Summer: Court Theatre revives a classic of the Black Arts Movement

Family, religion and race coalesce in Court Theatre’s production of Leslie Lee’s classic play “The First Breeze of Summer.” After having acted in a production at the University of Michigan in 1977, and two years later directed a production in Flint, Michigan, director Ron OJ Parson revisits and revives “First Breeze” at Court Theatre, where he is currently a resident artist. This production arrives almost thirty years after its original premiere in New York by the Negro Ensemble Company.

Parson’s decision to direct “First Breeze” in part pays homage to the Negro Ensemble Company, founded in New York in 1967 as a response to an article by Douglas Turner Ward written one year earlier. The article strongly suggested that American Theater was reserved “for Whites Only.” Over the years, the NEC has contributed to a burgeoning national Black Arts Movement committed to supporting black playwrights, its training program for young theater practitioners, and expanding the repertoire of roles for black actors. Its mission: “to present live theater performances by and about Black people to a culturally diverse audience that is often underserved by the theatrical community.” When asked about concern over the status of the show as a “classic” and how that may impact its accessibility to a 21st-century audience, Parson shrugged. “[While] it’s a period piece now, where before when I was in it, it was contemporary,” nonetheless, he continued, “It’s timeless.”

“The First Breeze of Summer” is Lucrecia Greene’s story, alternating between flashbacks of her as a young woman in the 1920s–abandoned by a string of men, each of whom left her with a child–and the present-day of the 1970s. She lives with her son Milton’s family, and shares a particular affinity with her grandson Louis, who struggles to find his identity as a young black man. Louis is cast down for dreams of being a doctor in the racially tense backdrop of 1970s society. Young Lucrecia’s scenes take place on a dimly lit elevated upstage, while Lucrecia’s face is often moonlit downstage, capturing the paralyzed, entranced expression of her remembering. When asked about the inspiration behind his staging techniques, Parson replied, “I don’t like to conform to traditional movement on stage.”

“First Breeze” penetrates deeply into the narrative of the Greene family, yet it also suggests race issues in a broader context. Milton’s older son encourages him to increase fees for his plaster business services, and though clearly undercharging, Milton backs down at the threat of losing his white patrons, and so forth. Religious worship plays an influential role in the narrative, with implications in both young Lucrecia’s narrative and the call-and-response church rituals practiced in the Greene home. In a feedback session, Parson noted that this practice is common in African-American homes, not only as a means of religious rites of passage, but also as a way of connecting individuals to their heritage. In fact, the church testifying scene was the most difficult to work on, according to Parson, “the most challenging in terms of content…. It had to be real.”

While specific context can be linked to a historical moment, the disparity in generational values and the capacity for religion to hold a family together transcends the epoch. Lucrecia says to her grandson, “And that’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years abiding by the will of my masters.” Don’t miss this powerful performance at the Court Theatre, running now through June 15th.

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Through June 15. For tickets, call (773) 753-4472 or visit www.courttheatre.org