Monday, February 19, 2018

Despite Some Excellent Writing and Characters, Antoinette Nwandu's 'Breach' Doesn't Fully Congeal -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Breach: a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate
written by Antoinette Nwandu
directed by Lisa Portes
Thru March 11
Victory Gardens Theater
Thru March 11

Last year, Pass Over, a play by Antoinette Nwandu, caused quite a stir in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

The play itself--imaginatively reworking Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot with a similar scenario taking place on an urban Chicago block--boldly broaches issues of racial inequality and the brutalization & murder of African-Americans at the hands of police officers.

But, within Chicago theater circles and associated social media communities, an even greater commotion revolved around comments Chicago Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss made in her review of Pass Over.

After some internal debate, I went to see that play, largely liked it and recapped some of the matters mentioned above in my review. And as of just a couple weeks ago--not clearly tied to last summer's hubbub--Weiss is no longer working for the Sun-Times. None of which directly factors into another Nwandu play, Breach, which newly opened at Victory Gardens Theater (in the famed Biograph on Lincoln Ave.).

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Though I assume there was some tinkering as director Lisa Portes prepped Breach for its world premiere, the play was actually written six years prior to Pass Over.

And, at least on the surface, despite being subtitled "a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate," Breach is a far less politically-charged play.

It focuses on Margaret (the stellar Caren Blackmore), a single urban woman who teaches English composition at a community college.

The two men in her life are Nate (Keith D. Gallagher), a very rich white douchebag she has long dated, and Rasheed (Al'Jaleel McGhee), a black ex-con who has become upstanding to the point of getting the job Margaret wanted, and is now her boss.

One of these men gets Margaret pregnant. I won't say which, but I believe Breach could be far more interesting--and incisive--had it been the other guy.

As it stands, the play has much great writing--concerning a woman in labor (not Margaret), the line "she was screaming like a white woman in a horror film" made everyone LOL--and some wonderful characters, suggesting Nwandu should have her pick of sitcoms to join as a staff writer.

In this production, Linda Bright Clay is a delight as Margaret's acerbic but bighearted great aunt Sylvia, with whom she lives, and Karen Rodriguez is a hoot as Carolina, a cleaning lady at the college that befriends Margaret, in part due to their mutual pregnancies.

So simply as an evening's entertainment about a likable woman sorting through the complexities of her career, relationships (including with her great aunt) and unexpected pregnancy, Breach should do quite nicely.

And as Margaret is a black woman, brought to life by an increasingly important African-American writer, there are certainly racial insights in the play that make it valuable for anyone to observe on a socially commentative level.

But I saw it much more as a human dramedy than a "manifesto on race in America," and a self-referential line late in the play seems to note that this aspect isn't overt.

There are some really nice scenes, including a touching interaction between Rasheed and Aunt Sylvia, and a strong use of music that adds to the entertainment value.

Yet some of what occurs feels a bit too theatrically contrived, and while Linda Buchanan's functional set design works well, I found the blaring lights between scene changes to be overblown.

Nwandu is a writer who deserves your attention, and I'm glad I availed myself of the opportunity to see Breach.

As always when I don't quite love a show, I hope others are far more smitten. I just didn't cross the breach from like to love in watching this one.

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