Originally developed in 2018 at the Festival of New Plays in Chicago, THE FIRST DEEP BREATH makes its Los Angeles debut in 2023. Passionately penned by Lee Edward Colston II – former prison guard turned actor, playwright, director, and author – THE FIRST DEEP BREATH is a powerful psychological study which plumbs a family’s deepest and darkest secrets from an African-American perspective.
Family head Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III is an ambitious and dedicated cleric whose dream of a mega-church may soon turn in reality. And yet -even though his longed-for goal is within reach – he struggles with mounting family problems, including the inexorable progress of Alzheimer’s Disease dimming the consciousness of his wife Ruth (Ella Joyce), the incarceration of his oldest son for rape (Lee Edward Colston II, doubling as author and actor), and the death of his daughter Diane, whose identical twin Denise (Candace Thomas) has taken over many caregiver duties for her mother while working as a prison guard and is courting burnout. It’s just before Thanksgiving – and it’s a day that the family won’t forget – as a memorial for Diane, who died six years ago, as the homecoming date for the Pastor’s paroled son, and as hidden events begin to slip out.
But there is more. The play also explores the conflicting emotions felt by Pearl Thomas (Deanna Reed-Foster), the Pastor’s wife’s sister who came to live with the family six years ago to help with Ruth’s care. And let’s not forget about AJ (Opa Adeyema), the Pastor’s younger son, designated to follow in his father’s footsteps even if the teenager just wants to dance – or Leslie Carter (Brandon Mendez Homer), a male nurse who lives with the family and yearns to marry Denise – or Tyree Fisher (Keith A Wallace), a gentle soul who stepped in to keep an eye on the family when his friend Abdul-Malik (aka the Pastor’s older son) went to prison six years ago. All of their smoldering secrets may just come to light during their fateful Thanksgiving dinner. After all, “To heal, you must talk about it.”
Colston has done a brilliant job of digging into each of these complex characters while interjecting some hilarious humor into what could otherwise have been a very dark tale indeed. Even though the play runs for over four hours (with two intermissions), there is never a dull moment as the gripping story proceeds. The author manages to inject some very unexpected surprises at just the right moment and neatly ties up the combustible package at the end. The audience is clearly intrigued and involved, and cheers and claps erupted as the play entered its denouement. At times, there might be a preachy quality – but, after all, this is the story of a Pastor and his family, warts and all.
Director Steve H. Broadmax III helmed the production with skill and compassion, and the cast did a superb job of projecting the contradictory emotions of each principal. Of course, having the playwright as a member of the cast must have helped clarify any cloudy points. Kudos were also earned by scenic designer Michael Carnahan, who made the Pastor’s elegant home both cozy and – like a house of cards – a bit wobby with staircases going hither and yon. The entire production team – including costume designer Eduardo Castro, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, sound designer Curtis Craig, choreographer DJ Smart, and fight director Steve Rankin – all contributed to a satisfying and entertaining production. The four hours seemed to fly!
THE FIRST DEEP BREATH runs through March 5, 2023, with performances from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and at 7:30 p.m. from Tuesdays through Fridays. The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 LeConte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Tickets begin at $29. For information and reservations, go online.