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By Elizabeth Youngman Westphal
Special to the Village News 

'The Wind and the Breeze' is a play with potential


Last updated 6/1/2018 at 4:26pm

From left, Nia (Chaz Shermil) listens to Tea (Cortez L. Johnson) explain his contacts in Atlanta to Sam (Terrell Donnell Sledge) while Ana (Nadia Guevara) also listens.

A world premiere play opened at The Cygnet Theater in Old Town San Diego recently. "The Wind and the Breeze" is by a new playwright Nathan Alan Davis.

I will begin with what I liked. Sean Fanning's set design was a home run. The lighting design by R. Craig Wolf delights the eye and adds to the wonder. Steven Leffue is a renowned sound designer. yet the rap sequences are muddled. I can offer only praise for the actors. Often it must have required courage.

The story begins in February on an overpass in Rockford, Illinois. Sam (Terrell Donnell Sledge) is marking his spot for the annual 4th of July celebration. There is magic in Sam that doesn't shine until the very last few minutes of the play. It is his defining moment. And that is when I got mad at the director, Rob Lutfy. He didn't develop Sam. The uber talented Sledge has the pedigree to take this piece to Broadway, win a Tony, do the movie and take home an Oscar. We only get a small peek at his power.

Sam is interrupted frequently by a roving band of bridge patrons. You see, Sam is a one-man-7-11 positioned on an overpass.

Messing around in Sam's space is wanna-be rapper Tea (Cortez L. Johnson). Tea is that guy who claims to know people down in Atlanta. He is that guy who always brags '...with the right break, he could be a recording artist too' all the while grabbing his crotch to keep his oversized-hip-hugging-acid-washed-low-riders from falling around his ankles. Johnson plays his part with all the enthusiasm of a puppy getting a tummy rub. Fact is, he is so good we can detect his transformation into an inner-city-slum-hood as he introduces Sam to his pal, an up-and-coming rapper.

Demetrius Clayton plays the gansta-rapper with force. He gives a human face to a ghetto image. As Shantell, he throws the "N" word out as often as a candy wrapper. That is the double entendre here. Shantell isn't a hood at all. He is a rag tag cook at a fast food chain. He isn't a thug, he is really a citizen.

When Tea introduces Sam to Nia (Chaz Shermil), it is apparent Tea is the baby-daddy. The accomplished Ms. Shermil adds the humanity this piece requires. Her characterization is riveting. Unconsciously, she upstages everyone else who happens to have the misfortune to be in a scene with her.

Street musician Ana is played by the very talented local gal, Nadia Guevara. She summarizes herself when she says, "I live in my car because I am going places." I loved her. She needs to have a greater purpose on stage.

Here is what I didn't like. Stage smoking. (Is it still relevant in the Black community?) Because it is not only offensive – since real cigarettes are used (and a possible violation of the fire code) – it caused several couples to abandon the theater early in the performance.

Plus, it was painfully obvious to me as a lifelong reformed smoker – these actors are not smokers. By the way, it takes years of inhaling to become a smoke-sucking-screen-siren. Consequently, these actors look down-right goofy at times as they were embarrassingly awkward when using cigarettes as a prop. None of these actors can pull it off. Give it up, it is torturous to watch.

Which brings me to Ronda (without an 'H') played expertly by Monique Gaffney (Except when she tries to smoke. She doesn't know how to, and it is painfully distracting). Gaffney embodies everything else offensive about a self-important, over-empowered, abrasive policewoman/person – regardless of birth. She is arrogant, entitled, and abusive. She nailed it.

As a prelude to his play, the author writes in the forward of the program "a lot of times with plays that come from Black writers and feature Black characters – or characters from other marginalized groups – there is an expectation (sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken) that there will be a social issue or historical trauma at the center of the story. I've written those plays before and will again but this is not that play."

Really? Because Davis intentionally writes Ronda without giving her the dignity of the "H" in her name. And then he further stigmatizes his players with rants using the "N" word, casting that ugly racial slur through the air. These are "social issues." It is because of these words this work becomes about social issues.

Words and attitudes were purposely written into this play which make parts of it so vile it could explain why there were so many empty seats after the intermission. While this isn't supposed to be "that play" – "The Wind and the Breeze" has morphed into that play because, odd as it may be, to date, Davis has only written pieces exploiting, I mean exploring, situations and stereotypes based on his father's ethnicity. I wonder, will he ever spend equal time exploring his mother's culture?

Author Nathan Alan Davis is the winner of multiple awards for his original "The Wind and the Breeze". However, I understand this piece is a re-write adding three extra characters. It is my belief The Cygnet production's rewrite has warped the original storyline.

Sam (Terrell Donnell Sledge) writes his next song while Ronda (Monique Gaffney) checks her attitude.

Let me point out, Davis won the Lorraine Hansberry Award in 2017. The award is named for the author of "A Raisin in the Sun". Davis got a $1,000 prize for that one. In 2018, his original script was awarded a $50,000 Whiting Award for drama which is presented to 10 emerging writers annually.

"The Wind and the Breeze" is now playing at The Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town San Diego. Multiple performances play throughout the week until June 10. Box office: (619) 337-1525 or Parking around Old Town can be tough, so allow plenty of time.

This show has the potential to be a blockbuster. But, during the drive home, I rated it a 6. However, after dissecting the script and wading through the multiple layers of the characters, and multiple rewrites of my own, I have upped the score to a 7 out of 10.

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