Leslie Lee's revival of his autobiographical 1975 Tony-nominated play, 'First Breeze of Summer,' comes at a point when examining the African-American experiences in our society has once again taken center stage. Lee's play predates the August Wilson canon and may have inspired it, as it traces the intertwining lives of three generations of the Edwards family, from the backwoods of the South, to a substantial middle-class suburban home north of Philadelphia.
Interestingly, the ensemble cast, along with director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, have often worked together in one or another of Wilson's plays, and as Leslie Uggams, who plays Gremmar, the matriarch of the clan has stated, 'Once you become one of August Wilson's characters, you are family.' It is the family's spirit and perseverance that comes through in this drama, with Gremmar as its role model.
Played with understated beauty and restraint by Leslie Uggams, Gremmar's a woman who holds tight to her dreams and memories, and refuses to apologize for her actions as she inspires her teenage grandson Lou to dare to dream big and find his own destiny.
That destiny is marred, however, by secrets Gremmar keeps to herself. As the play unfolds, and the secrets are revealed, Lou has the most difficulty dealing with the consequences, and questions his own feelings of separateness and heritage. In a rousing, if long-winded scene led by the friendly evangelical preacher Reverend Mosely (Harvy Blanks), the family gives testimony to Jesus, complete with hymns and revelations.
Moved by this in-home revival meeting, Lou feels compelled to announce how much he wants a better future -- to become a doctor, not someone who installs wallboard, like his father and brother, Nate. This "uppity" quest (remember, it's was 1975) ultimately causes a you-have-a-duty conflict between the two brothers.
The relationship between Nate and Lou, Gremmar's grandsons, played by real-life brothers Brandon and Jason Dirden, has the kind of chemistry that cannot be denied. Even when fighting, we see the love between them, and Nate understands that his younger brother is loath to make the same sacrifices he did when he dropped out of college to help their father (Keith Randolph Smith) in his struggling business.
Justifying whether to work at a trade that helps pay the mortgage in the here and now, or get a college education first, is a dilemma to which a great many families can relate. Given our present economy and political climate, the arguments resound louder than ever before, and "First Breeze" transcends this one family's plight as its patriarch, Milton, puts food on the table and his pride on his sleeve.
As this generational story moves into the present, unexpected skeletons pop out of closets when we least expect them, in confessions and on deathbeds, and the question of whether or not the generations that follow need to know all our past indiscretions is up to each conscience to decide. Is it better to take your secrets to the grave and spare others, or must one make a clean breast of it first? This is a theme that's also explored in another family saga, Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony-winning 'August: Osage County.'
Leslie Lee explains the revealing of secrets as the seeking of light; like trying to fill the void between reality and God's will, but though we can sympathize with Lee's view, we also have to be mindful of the havoc that can be wreaked by deathbed revelations, especially when the living have no chance to work through the collateral damage such revelations cause.
That said, it's also true that if one is perceptive enough to understand the past, and let go of the pain, one may gain the strength to thrive in the present and be unafraid of the future. These are the things that "First Breeze of Summer" gets you thinking about.
Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus