Fresno State theater professor Thomas-Whit Ellis considers his role to expose the community to a variety of African-American dramatic perspectives — something of which he says there's a tangible dearth on the local theater scene. For his latest production he's selected Leslie Lee's 1975 drama "The First Breeze of Summer."
We caught up with him via email to talk about the play.
Question: What is the play about?
The play focuses on two stories. Story A takes place in the early 20s and deals with the life of Lucretia, a young, attractive, black domestic struggling to find her place in the world and a fitful love life. She falls in love with and trusts 3 different guys who clearly take advantage of her, each leaving her with a child. One of which is a rich, white guy who presents the kind of schizophrenic, love/hate view of blacks as the late Strom Thurmond, who fought against civil rights but fathered a child with a black mistress. Ironically, her young life takes place in the same region as Thurmond's constituency.
Story B takes place some decades later where we see a senior Lucretia (Gremmar) living with one of her grown children, and forming a strong bond with her grandson, a sensitive and frustrated adolescent who thinks the world of her and her commitment to her faith. Things go awry when he stumbles upon her past, these lovers and what he views as sordid, sinful liaisons.
Religion plays a big role in the play. What can you tell us about that?
Paul Carter Harrison, considered one of the deans of critical and philosophical thought on black theater, has put forth the notion that the black church, black theater and black history are all inner-connected — that the theatricality found in the traditions of the black church act as a precursor to the black theater experience. And that the church is an indispensable part of the struggle of black America.
The central character in the play, Lucretia, might seem demure in present day, but it turns out she had quite a sensuous past. It can be a shock to discover that one's parents were, well, sexual beings. Any thoughts?
Yes, and it is this shock that tilts the world of the grandson and dramatically alters the story's arc. Also, this sort of theme, sexual feelings, confusions and interpersonal expectations is rather popular with a number of black romantic comedies in the film world. But not so much examined in the theater.
You'll be presenting "First Breeze" as a staged reading. Why?
Well, this is a practical reaction to a number of budgetary related cutbacks that have hobbled our department. Some support staff positions have been lost, directly impacting the nature of what and how we present our work. This is kind of an experiment to present a show with less stress on our tech departments. The downside, which we're monitoring closely, is the possible impact on our bottom line. Will a staged reading appeal to our paying audience?
As a director it presents a number of challenges, which is why I volunteered to pursue this with my choice. What you'll see is a kind of hybrid, traditional reading-from-scripts for some scenes while other parts, the flashbacks, are presented on their feet and off book.
What do you hope audiences walk away with from this play?
An ongoing dramatic theme presented in most film, TV and stage presentations, is the notion of black resiliency. That blacks have always faced and negotiated a complicated and dangerous life in America, but continue to survive. Perhaps not without some negative fallout and dysfunction, but survive nonetheless. Another theme is that Gremmar has managed her life partially though a growing and evolving commitment to her faith. We also see the evolution of black issues and the changing nature of racism vis-à-vis Gremmar's young life and present day life.
"The First Breeze of Summer," through Oct. 12, Woods Theatre, Fresno State. fresnostate.edu/theatrearts, (559) 278-7512. $17, $15 seniors, $10 students.
Read an extended interview with Thomas-Whit Ellis.
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