Between the 1975 Broadway premiere of Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer and the show’s revival this year at Court Theatre, much has changed in the theater world and in the larger culture. Today, the black family and its traditions are no longer a novel subject for the stage—perhaps it was this novelty that factored in the play’s 1975 Tony Award nomination. However, Court Theatre’s production proves that in the hands of capable actors, even its repetitive structure and occasional penchant for overwrought expostulation can’t spoil it completely. While not exactly a fresh breeze, the show still offers rejuvenating performances.
The First Breeze of Summer revolves around the life and loves of Gremmar, the aging matriarch of a black family in an unnamed Northeastern city circa 1975. The play alternates between vignettes of her former life as a single mother involved with a number of men—both black and white—and her present life as the beloved grandmother of a large family dominated by her son, Milton, and his two boys, Lou and Nate. As her checkered past is revealed to the audience and to Lou, who has been kept in the dark about it, the simmering quasi-Oedipal tension between Milton and his sons comes to a boil.
Almost every actor turns in a superb performance. Pat Bowie, a Court veteran, is alive to all the nuances of Gremmar’s complicated personality: her warmth, perceptiveness, regret, humor, and steadfast desire to justify herself in the face of a less-than-honorable life. Lee’s semi-autobiographical play reflects his own disillusionment with his grandmother after he discovered that her children were sired by different fathers. It’s a credit to Lee that his grandmother’s fictional counterpart is so brilliantly multifaceted. She is the spiritual center of the family, and when she falls from grace in the eyes of Lou, we sympathize deeply with his pain.
Other notable performances include A.C. Smith’s portrayal of Milton Edwards, the youngest of Gremmar’s sons. Smith is an enormous man with a bear-like presence on the stage, and when he begins to “testify” in an impromptu church ritual in the family’s living room, the effect is at once comical, moving, and terrifying. Ronald L. Conner plays the sweet-natured Harper Edwards, Milton’s preacher manqué father who courted Gremmar in the 1930s, when she was called Lucretia. His bashful, chivalrous demeanor is torn asunder by rage and religious contrition when he learns that Lucretia was never married and is therefore, by the common reckoning, a whore. Taj McCord, who plays Lucretia’s first love, is not quite up to the task of delivering an extremely long monologue about a black porter inured to the effects of racism—on the other hand, the monologue itself drags on so long that it would be difficult to imagine how any actor could lift it up.
McCord’s job isn’t made any easier by director Ron O.J. Parson’s somewhat indifferent staging. First Breeze features the most elaborate set design I’ve ever seen at the Court: a two-storey house with Gremmar’s bedroom set above a fully furnished living room, and a slice of the yard—with a life-size fake tree adorned with wind chimes—in the corner of the stage. Gremmar’s dramatized memories of her past loves take place entirely in that small upper-level bedroom area, rather removed from the audience. It makes sense for her lovers to inhabit her bedroom, but they seem isolated and tiny up there, and the scenes tend to thin out for that reason. The alternation between present day and past, signaled by a blackout and mood music, gets very repetitive after a while. This isn’t just Parson’s fault; Lee really should have varied the play’s structure a bit more.
Breeze’s power really lies in the complicated relationships between Gremmar, Milton, and Lou. Lee manages to touch all the bases in his account of the black experience—the burden of poverty, the effort to scrounge some dignity out of a degrading situation, and, of course, the pervasive effects of racism. But it is in how these dynamics inform the aforementioned relationships that the play delivers its punch. Lou’s striving to become a doctor and escape his father’s “degrading” work manifests itself in a hypersensitive fear of sexuality, a response to the stereotype of black sexual promiscuity. This clashes spectacularly with his realization that his grandmother was herself sexually promiscuous, though also a victim of circumstance. Milton’s efforts to be a businessman immune from the effects of racism combines with his deep attachment to his mother to create an explosive resentment of Lou. The end of the play weaves all these threads together beautifully.
While suffering from a repetitive structure and occasionally uninspired direction, Court’s rendition of The First Breeze of Summer gives ample evidence of why the play was such a hit in 1975. Given good actors, First Breeze shines brilliantly.