By Kia Corthron
Directed by Rahaleh Nassri
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The children’s slide sitting upstage would recall sweet memories of innocent children’s games except that it is dwarfed by a towering 7ft caged fencing traversing the stage. The dark lighting foretells of lurking present dangers yet unseen. At rise, hip hop music blasts us into the story of a young girl’s journey from playing on the playground to girl gang rites and initiations, family violence, criminal retribution and spent, worn, weary lives.
We scan the headlines everyday and see the fictionalized tales on shows from Homicide to The Wire. Breath, Boom provides a rare opportunity to be immersed in the real deal behind the headlines. These are not the young glamorized, made-up for TV, sweetly singing caged birds with bruised wings. These girls will cut you, cuss you out, sneer at the thought of your pain and laugh out loud while they finish the job. It’s not an easy picture and the depiction of endless cycles of violence might make you want to run home, turn off all the lights, hug your pillow and rock. Still, it’s too much of a reality for too many of our children to turn a well-intended blind eye..
Prix, played by the startlingly fresh talent Roxi Trapp Dukes Victorian, is the main character whose back story is the premise for the play’s title, which refers to the powerful impact of fireworks. As she tells it, seeing the sky light up in amazing colors takes your breath away, then within seconds the loud boom will almost knock you off your feet. Actually, it’s Victorian’s electrifying performance that will blow you away. First of all, she’s got an extraordinary connection to Prix’s tortured inner soul. Through body language, sullen expressions, scratches and ticks, she can portray a frightening array of emotions, whether recalling early flashbacks of abuse, lashing out in self-protection, brandishing her razor weapons, relishing her own sense of power and invincibility, or settling into the relative calm of adulthood. Victorian sustains the core essence of her character while aging from fourteen-year old tough girl bully, to recalcitrant teenage gang leader, drug dealer, hardened post-teen gaming the criminal justice system, then finally worn down but not out young woman, aged beyond her years.
Prix has seen and experienced more than any child should ever be subjected to, which of course shapes her and forms her perspectives about life and living. To realize that such cruelty is being perpetrated on children every hour of every day-well, it’s hard to imagine, and even harder to watch. Still, the compelling stories, fresh performances by talented locals, and taut direction by Rahaleh Nassri make the experience well worth while.
A bit more on director Nassri-she was born in Tehran, Iran, speaks four languages, is classically trained with an MFA from the Shakespeare Theater Company and was recently on stage in Washington Shakespeare Company’s Caligula. Somewhere in all that rather classy pedigree is a gut-wrenching, visceral connection to the story that enables her to extract its viciously raw essence from her large cast, assure authenticity instead of stereotype, and orchestrate lightning quick scene changes with the “prison guards” who stay in character. Nassri obviously knows her way around every inch of a stage, and has an uncompromising take on the script and characters.
Local actors Natasha Rothwell, Tiffany Jillian Green and Ashley Ware convincingly portray the posse. Monique Paige is striking as the Mother who thought she could make peace with her husband’s physical abuse until she just snaps. The depiction of her journey from denial-prone wife, to resigned inmate, to virus-infected dying mother is trump-tight. Juliana Edeke is sweetly appealing as Angel who has a touching passage recalling names and faces of relatives and friends captured in rollicking scrapbook pictures, only to be killed through gang violence, family abuse, and drive-bys.
That playwright Kia Corthron ia able to illuminate the life-essence of her characters with only a few lines, only to have us lose them within moments, hits hard. For example, one character playfully plans all the stylish details of her own funeral like she’s organizing her sweet sixteen party-murder is a sad though accepted reality for these girls. Also, Theodore Snead, plays the unsympathetic character Jerome, sexually abusive step-father and wife beater with a full dimensional presence, to the point that he can deliver lines about not being a bad father and doing the best he could with a straight face. Perhaps it helps that he’s speaking as a ghostly presence with blood stained shirt front and back, evidence of a bullet through his nonexistent heart.
What sets this piece apart from other categories of gritty urban drama is the lyrical poetry immersed throughout. Corthron’s language is quite striking at times, especially when Prix is describing her love – fireworks. She sketches their designs, will talk to anybody about the pyrotechnic qualities of the explosions “of precise, organized chaos,” all of which makes the loss of a fully realized human being even more painful to watch. The dead step-father matter of factly informs Prix that her mother’s prison sentence for killing him is three times what he would have served if he had just knocked her off. Corthron’s insight about the reduced value of a woman’s life when compared to a man’s is enough to make you take to the streets.
Kia Corthron hails from Cumberland, Maryland, hardly the bastion of throat slitting, chain wielding girls from the ‘hood, but maybe her twenty years in New York has helped her internalize and depict the brutal reality of life on the streets. Wherever it comes from, her writing is a piercingly fresh voice for the often overlooked and unseen characters who usually slip under the social radar, and Studio’s razor sharp production helps it cut to the bone.
Running Time: 1:45 with 1 intermission
When: Thru January 6th. Showtimes are Wednesday-Saturday 8:30 pm, Sunday 7:30pm.
Where: Studio Theater, 1501 14th St, N.W. (14 & P), Washington, DC
Information: call 202- 332-3300 or consult the website