For every family who revels in reuniting with each other this time of year, there is another for whom the holidays feel more like survival than a celebration—painful truths are choked down with the meal, and more words are eaten than leftovers. Such a family is the Jones clan of Lee Edward Colston II’s The First Deep Breath, currently making its world premiere at Chicago’s Victory Gardens, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.
“Rooted in the experience of the Black American family, The First Deep Breath confronts the bonds of religion, sexuality, secrets, and lies,” reads the theater’s Instagram page. For the family of Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III, that already turbulent gumbo is further confounded by issues of reputation, respectability and profound grief, as this fictional family’s bonds have been perhaps irreparably damaged by the unprocessed pain of death, disease, unrequited love, incarceration, and abuse.
“The First Deep Breath is about the crushing weight of grief, and the joy that comes from healing,” playwright Lee Edward Colston II says of his latest work, which has been rightly compared to Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer prize-winning and equally chaotic family drama, August: Osage County. Speaking of August, comparisons to revered playwright August Wilson are also inevitable, not only for Colston’s choice to portray the fraught family dynamics within a tight-knit black community but because like Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, Colston’s plays are all set in his native Philadelphia. While The First Deep Breath is not autobiographical, the playwright shares that it was inspired by elements of his own family and community. “I feel like I’m every character...or at least, a small piece of me is,” he says.
Theater lovers undaunted by the play’s three-and-half hour running time (broken up by two intermissions) will likely emerge feeling much the same. There are admittedly a few redundancies that verge on being overwrought, but so gripping is The First Deep Breath’s narrative and performances that the production feels far shorter in length—no small feat for typically impatient audiences, and ultimately, well worth the time spent.
While the Victory Gardens’ production boasts an intergenerational, truly powerhouse cast (familiar face Clinton Lowe is again a standout as prodigal son Abdul-Malik/Albert Melvin Jones IV), of particular note are the stunning performances of Celeste Williams as Ruth Jones (wife of the aforementioned pastor) and Deanna Reed-Foster as her sister, Pearl. These two veteran actresses are at their absolute best here, cycling through humor, anguish, disillusionment, rage and maternal warmth with dizzying, but always deftly handled speed.
“Triggering” is an oft-abused word, but there are scenes where the troubles of the Jones family threaten to emotionally overwhelm. Every character on stage has an issue (or several), and even Colston admits to writing with the intent “to disturb the comfortable and make the uncomfortable feel sane.” He is successful in that mission, as there is no shortage of uncomfortable moments in The First Deep Breath. But for this writer, as the cast took their final bow, it was empathy that was the ultimate takeaway for keeping up with the Joneses. No matter how functional your family might be, you will see yourself or someone you love in these characters. And of the many resounding truths spoken onstage, perhaps this is the one most worth taking home to our loved ones this holiday season: “Hurt and shame will stay in a family until somebody’s brave enough to feel it.”
The First Deep Breath is in production at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater through Dec. 22; tickets are available on their website.