Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Breathe (a ritual to undo), by Ashawnti Sakina Ford, is a theatrical response to how it might have felt to be in the moment, and how it feels to have seen and heard that moment–if not in the flesh, then over and over again by way of the video captured on a young woman's phone, the documentation that such things occur in real life and not only in nightmares. It ran for three performances May 12th, 13th and 14th in the Paradise Gathering Hall of the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis.
The play was commissioned by Exposed Brick Theatre, the first of eight bearing fruit from the company's "Through Our Eyes" project, supported by emergency funds received at the start of the pandemic to help sustain BIPOC playwrights and theater artists while their stages were shut down. Two months later, the killing of George Floyd and civic uprising that followed added to the weight on the shoulders of this community.
Breathe (a ritual to undo) is only forty minutes long, but the leadership of Exposed Brick were eager to share it with the community, especially given the upcoming anniversary of the tragic events of May 25, 2020.
Upon entering this black box space, one felt the solemnity of that time, two years. Two rows of chairs formed a square around the central performance space. In the center of that space a shape in yellow and black striped police tape marked off the site of a crime. A pair of candles, not yet lit, sat on each side of that zone, which had, by virtue of the horrendous acts committed there, become sacred. At three of the corners formed by the rows of chairs were makeshift shrines, with flowers, pictures, and other tokens of remembrance and celebration. Set behind the fourth corner, musician Umar Malik ushered in the audience with the constant rhythmic beat of a skin drum.
The three cast members entered, serenely as if entering a sacred ceremony, and each took repose at one of the three shrines. They represented three ways in which the body can respond to racial trauma, identified in the program as Still (Alexis Camille), Shake (Sterling Miller), and Hum (Dana Lee Thompson). Suddenly, Miller erupted from his corner into a dance, fully occupying the space, accompanied by increasingly frenetic drum beats. He moved with gazelle-like grace, until grace became overwhelmed by the intensity of that need to shake off his pain. He became so frenzied that he appeared to be lit by a strobe light, though it was merely the illusion created by a body desperate to move fast enough to escape the pain.
Thompson took on the role of a healer, counseling the others–and all of us, the audience, silently included among those in need of healing–to breathe deeply, mindfully, rhythmically. Later, she called on breath to create a hum, releasing the sound of music from our throats as a means of rekindling joy. She enjoined us to savor joy, preserve joy, and to not allow joy to be defeated by despair. Camille, representing "still", attempted to overcome the darkness through inactivity, silence–like a very young child who closes their eyes and sits very still, believing it renders them invisible. They tried to find comfort through humor, through jokes, but the jokes landed with a cruel thud.
Nothing completely worked. The pain is too great, the dread of its recurrence too certain. It takes every form of self-awareness and discipline–breath, shake, hum, stillness and more–for individuals to restore their hearts, and for communities to return to functionality. Camille, struggling to maintain equilibrium, stated "I try to keep joy–it's a hard thing to keep." Miller exclaimed "So I breath, and I hum, and I shake ... and I still want to fuck somebody up." He was not choosing anger, not willing himself to a violent act–but he recognized his body's reflexive urges. Restraining those requires enormous strength and amazing grace.
Camille, Miller and Thompson performed beautifully, their words and gestures delivered with eloquence and unassailable feeling. Mitchel C. Frazier's lighting created an aura of remove from this world, into a world where feelings are given full voice, received without judgment. Director Antonio Duke drew out the full expression of those feelings, and maintained a consistent sense of being witnesses to a sacred ceremony.
Breathe (a ritual to undo) does not suggest any strategies to address the pandemic of racism that has pummeled our nation for centuries. It offers no insights into preventive actions, no analysis pointing to historic roots or intersectionality that compound the problem. As stated, it is "a ritual to undo." For those who carry the pain within themselves, playwright Ashawnti Sakina Ford has devised an exorcism, which will do more than ease the pain, to make carrying on in the world a possibility, until the next painful flood washes over our shore. It is desperately needed, and not nearly enough.
Breathe, a production of Exposed Brick Theatre, played May 13, 2022 through May 15, 2022 in the Paradise Gathering Hall of Capri Theater, 2027 West Broadway, Minneapolis MN. For information on Exposed Brick Theatre, please visit exposedbricktheatre.com.
Playwright: Ashawnti Sakina Ford; Director: Antonio Duke; Set Design: Bayou Bay; Lighting Design: Mitchell C. Frazier; Original Music: Umar Malik; Movement Consultant: Patricia Brown; Stage Manager: Arianna Diaz-Celon;
Cast: Alexis Camille (Still), Umar Malik: musician; Sterling Miller (Shake), Dana Lee Thompson (Hum).