“The First Deep Breath” Enthralls At Victory Gardens – by Rick & Brenda McCain

From left: Clinton Lowe, David Alan Anderson, and Melanie Loren in a scene from "The First Breath".

“OMG! WOW! WHAT THE…”, were some of the words we heard in the first 50 minutes of this over three-hour play. The jolt the audience felt failed in comparison to how mesmerized they were, sitting on the edge of their seats, saying, “What else could happen in this play?”

The world premiere of The First Deep Breath opened at Victory Gardens with a bang – let’s get real, more like explosives! It’s about an enthralling, dysfunctional African-American family filled with long-buried secrets, pain, and trauma who’s in dire need to breathe.

Playwright Lee Edward Colston II’s work is compared to literary giants like August Wilson, Tracy Letts, and Eugene O’Neil. Colston takes the audience inside the life of the first family of Mother Bethel Baptist Church, where deep-seated conflicts loom over this family.

With more secrets and lies than the current president’s impeachment trial, The First Deep Breath will have you gasping for more, in this three-act play that runs three-and-a-half hours long (with two intermissions).

You would be in the majority if you think that’s too long, but it’s so entertaining and compelling it won’t feel like you have been sitting that long because it runs like a television drama series. Colston hits you with commanding topics such as the freedom of sexuality, religion, mental illness, secrets, and lies, with passion and ferociousness to hold your attention.

From left: Patrick Agada, Loren, and Anderson

The toxicity and the shock factor in Breath are off the charts, and sometimes they went overboard with the obscenity during the sex scenes. However, this play could easily be one of our Top Ten of The Year, even with these invasive scenes. This play is powerful enough without them, and we caution our audience that they may be offensive. 

The power in this story of healing and learning to forgive with passion and courage is like the perfect storm, surging your cerebral cortex to another form of consciousness. You definitely will not walk out of this play the same.

“Highly Recommended”

The First Deep Breath
By Lee Edward Colston II
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
Through December 22, 2019
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 3 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $31-$65 at 773/871-3000 or victorygardens.org

Director Steve H. Broadnax III brings Colston’s story to life in this ambitious new drama of a broken family with a phenomenal cast that electrified us from beginning to end.

In the opening scene, a light silhouette shines over Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III (David Alan Anderson), who walks on the stage to deliver a powerful sermon. We learn that he’s giving the eulogy at his daughter Diane’s funeral. In his heartfelt acclamation, Jones references his wife’s illness and a son who stands accused of a terrible crime.

After the prolific prologue, the play is fast-forwarded six years to the Jones’ family home in a neighborhood in Philadelphia, where the family is gearing up for two strenuous events. 

Anderson and Celeste Williams

The entire family is preparing for a special service to mark the sixth anniversary of Diane’s death, which is the same time Albert Melvin Jones IV (Clinton Lowe) will be coming home. The release of “Little Al,” who has spent the last six years in lockup for a crime he maintains he didn’t commit, doesn’t sit well with the family.

Little Al, who comes home with the new name of Abdul-Malik to free himself from his father’s legacy, feels like he’s going to another prison under the watchful eye of his iron-fisted father; who blames him for his sister Diane’s death and isn’t too happy to have him home.

Dee-Dee (Melanie Loren), Diane’s identical twin, is the peacemaker in the family who is living in the shadows of her sister’s ashes. An urn and a picture of Diane are prominent fixtures in the dining room. Dee-Dee, who is now the forgotten daughter, and often called Diane by her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, is seeking to be seen by her father and mother, Ruth Jones (Celeste Williams).

AJ (Patrick Agada) is the youngest of the Jones family. He’s a high school senior with a well-kept secret applying to different colleges. AJ is seeking to live his life on his terms as a dancer, not a preacher, as his father desires that one day he will take over the pulpit.

The battles within the entire Jones family come front and center over Thanksgiving dinner, where everything is laid out on the table, and each of the Jones siblings have a secret, fearing the hypocritical judgment of their father. 

Deanna Reed Foster and Loren

All of the performances are breath-taking. David Alan Anderson as Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III does a very compelling job as the rigid, formidable patriarch of the family. Celeste Williams, who stars as Ruth Jones, does a phenomenal job as someone battling with Alzheimer’s. If a star of the play could be given, she wins hands down.

The trio of siblings is quite moving in their roles. Clinton Lowe as Abdul-Malik (Albert Melvin Jones IV), is very appealing as the ex-convict who tries to connect back with his family. Melanie Loren’s portrayal of Dee-Dee (Denise Jones), the daughter with a kind heart, stuck in two worlds of living her best life or drowning in the family drama is an undeniable truth for many. Patrick Agada as AJ (Alexander Michael Jones) is a gentle soul who seeks to make his path in this world by his terms, not his father’s. 

We would be remiss if we didn’t say anything about the great supporting actors in this play. Deanna Reed-Foster does an excellent job as Pearl Thomas, Ruth’s sister, the caretaker with a stabbing voice that keeps it real throughout every scene. Jalen Gilbert as Tyree Fisher, Abdul-Malik’s best friend, is devoted not only to Abdul-Malik, but to his entire family. Lastly, Gregory Fenner, as Leslie Carter, the level-headed boyfriend/fiance, brings a calmness to Dee-Dee and the chaotic Jones household.

Gregory Fenner, Lowe, Loren, and Jalen Gilbert

The First Deep Breath is a persuasive and gripping story that finds each member of the Jones family desperately fighting to take a breath and become free. That old saying, “a family that prays together stays together,” does not work here. In the end, a “Family Feud” breaks out, and when the lights go dark, no one is coming together claiming victory.

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