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    The cast of The First Breeze of Summer. in The First Breeze of Summer
    Photo by Richard Termine
    The cast of "The First Breeze of Summer."

    Signature Breeze

    Leslie Lee's family drama, "The First Breeze of Summer," serves as a fine introduction to The Signature Theatre's Negro Ensemble Company Season.


    All hail The Signature Theatre Company and its mission to preserve our theatrical heritage through yearly revivals and premieres of works by playwrights old and new, one season at a time.

    Cast: Harvey Blanks (Reverend Mosely), Yaya DaCosta (Lucretia), Sandra Daley (Gloria Townes), Crystal Anne Dickinson (Hope), Brandon Dirden (Nate Edwards), Jason Dirden (Lou Edwards), Quincy Dunn-Baker (Briton Woodward), Marva Hicks (Hattie), John Earl Jelks (Harper Edwards), Tuck Milligan (Joe Drake), Gilbert Owuor (Sam Green), Brenda Pressley (Aunt Edna), Keith Randolph Smith (Milton Edwards) and Leslie Uggams (Gremmar Edwards) Original Music and Music Direction: Bill Sims, Jr. .
    Sound design by: David Margolin Lawson.
    Set design by: Michael Carnahan.
    Costumes by: Karen Perry.
    Lighting design by: Marcus Doshi.
    Production stage manager: Winnie Y. Lok.
    Fight Direction: Thomas Schall.
    Peter Norton Space
    555 West 42nd St. (btw. 10th & 11th Ave.)
    Aug. 5 - Oct. 19, 2008

    The previous 16 seasons have honored such playwrights as Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Maria Irene Fornes, Lanford Wilson, Edward Albee and Arthur Miller — who was very much alive when his works inaugurated the Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street.

    This season, Artistic Director James Houghton has chosen to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the ground-breaking Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), which — under the leadership of Douglas Turner Ward — helped foster the careers of such playwrights as Leslie Lee, Samm-Art Williams ("Home," Nov. '08) and Charles Fuller ("Zooman and the Sign," March '09) along with a plethora of others. The season will end with a staged reading of Ward's own "Day Of Absence"(Feb 1 and 2,'09).

    First up is Lee's large ensemble family drama, "The First Breeze of Summer," serving as a fine introduction to The NEC. The play, which might well have been subtitled, "The Three Loves of Lucretia," tells several stories, both past and present, thanks to the judicious use of flashbacks. The Edwards family matriarch, Gremmer — a luminous Leslie Uggams — was once a lovely young girl named Lucretia (an equally luminous Yaya DaCosta).

    Kudos to all involved in the ensemble with a special note for the glorious house and yard designed by Michael Carnahan.  

    Lucretia's past and present often exist simultaneously with both actresses in the same room but in different time periods. This effect is beautifully articulated thanks to the honest yet tender direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the TONY-winning actor ("Seven Guitars") who launched his directing career at Signature last year with a revival of the same August Wilson play for which he won his award.

    Today Gremmer is her family's rock and a God-fearing woman — a bible-thumping preacher (the wonderful Harvey Blanks) rouses both the family and the audience to prove that point. But Lucretia's past life includes several youthful indiscretions with three men — two black (Sam and Harper) and one white (Briton) — as the audience slowly discovers, for Lee has also written a bit of mystery, as many family histories are. Set in 1977, the play is also about the stirrings of black pride in an upwardly mobile pre-African-American family (the "African-American" nomenclature had not yet come to be.)

    The present-day family includes Lucretia's children, the solid Milton (Keith Randolph Smith) and the prickly Edna (Brenda Pressley) plus her two grandsons, Nate and Lou (well-played by real life brothers, Brandon and Jason Dirden). Nate works with his dad, Milton, in the family plastering business, which always brings in the lowest bid and Nate clashes with his father about undervaluing their work. Lou, a young man with secrets of his own, aspires to college and med school.

    Gremmer's birthday party is the catalyst that slams the family past into its present, uncovering the secrets and lies at its foundation. Kudos to all involved in the ensemble with a special note for the glorious house and yard designed by Michael Carnahan.

    Coda: I read a long diatribe in the "Village Voice," written by my learned colleague Michael Feingold, about how dated this play is. He said in essence that the world in the last 33 years of African-American experience has passed this play by, and that its characters are "dinosaurs." I can only respond by saying that Women's Lib must have also passed by "A Doll's House;" Alcoholic's Anonymous and Drug Rehab must have made "Long Day's Journey into Night" obsolete; and cell phones could have saved the lives of "Romeo and Juliet." I won't even mention the decade-by-decade works of August Wilson.

    Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, folks. This lovely memory play has already extended twice at the Signature Theatre Company but must close on October 18th.

    SEPTEMBER 24, 2008

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  • The First Breeze of Summer   from Natalie Brown, Nov 6, 2008

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