Watch the hour-long video of 11 short new plays below.
In “Holla,” a serial killer (Will Swenson) wearing the distorted white mask from the Scream series, makes an ominous phone call to Chris (Chris Herbie Holland) an unsuspecting Black teenager, intending to scare him to death. But the conversation takes an unexpected turn.
“What’s your favorite scary movie, Chris?” the deep-voiced killer asks, accompanied by spooky music.
“Fruitvale Station,” Chris replies, referring to the movie based on the real-life police killing of Oscar Grant.
“I meant scary, scary…” That movie “might be scarier for…” — he hesitates – “certain people.”
Chris calls him a racist. The killer gets defensive. “I wasn’t going to kill you because you’re black…I think it’s important to kill all people..”
The four-minute play by Lee Edward Colston II – funny, pointed — is the first of the 11 new short works in #WhileWeBreathe, subtitled “A Night of Creative Protest,” which grew out of conversations the week after the police killing of George Floyd. It debuted this week, and will remain online.
“Holla” is something of an outlier in #WhileWeBreathe. More representative is
Azure D Osborne-Lee’s “Sundown Support.” In it, Kevin R. Free portrays the leader of a support group “for survivors of racial terror,” where we hear some horror stories of police abuse.
One can argue that the entire enterprise functions in some ways as a support group.
That’s been my reaction to most of the anthology productions that have proliferated since the start of the pandemic. They seem to exist on three levels.
They are in effect support groups for the theater artists involved – ways for them to stay busy, feel useful, express themselves, and stay engaged with their community (These are generally not paying gigs.) Almost all of these productions are also, crucially, fundraisers, most for organizations meeting urgent needs. #WhileWeBreathe is a fundraiser for NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Bail Project, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, BYP 100, Forced Trajectory Project, Justice Committee (JC), and Southerners on New Ground (SONG).
And then, on a third level, these group efforts are also gifts for theatergoers – stories or works of art or entertainments (call them what feels apt), often offered at minimal or no charge. Put together with great passion and great speed, these shows seem to put such a priority on community that, one suspects, nobody is excluded and nothing is edited.
But the participants are talented professionals at the top of their game — #WhileWeBreathe is put together by two Broadway producers — Arvind Ethan David (Jagged Little Pill) and Brian Moreland (Sea Wall/A Life, The Sound Inside, and the forthcoming American Buffalo)
So anthologies like this one have felt to me not so much uneven as overwhelming.
In several of the plays in #WhileWeBreathe, a character expresses his or her anger and/or confusion in what initially sounds like a rant but turns into something powerful and lyrical. In Liza Jessie Peterson’s “Do You Really Want To Know?,” for example, Michele Shay portrays a woman asked via text by her family how she’s doing, and she decides to tell them: “Some days I’m just paralyzed with rage. It all comes in waves. I can’t think about George Floyd without thinking about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery….” Photographs of the victims slowly cover the video as she mentions their names, blotting her out.In Khari Wyatt’s “Mister,” Ty Jones tells his character’s story of heartache hardship, with a payoff that emphasizes the importance of dignity.
Two of the plays present the twin urgencies of protest and pandemic as a conflict: In Steve Harper’s “Three People,” a brother who is a medical professional (Keith Eric Chappelle) argues with his sister (Birgundi Baker) that she should stay home and stay healthy rather than march in the streets; in Arvind Ethan David’s “Pre-existing Condition,” a single character (Neil Brown Jr.) debates the same dilemma within himself. “The arc of history may bend towards justice and this may be our moment to pull it a little closer, but the arc of a pandemic only knows one thing – exponential growth’’
In two other plays, we hear from characters who turn out to be dead; both dramas are probably more affecting if you don’t realize right away that you’re hearing from murder victims, so I won’t name them.
#WhileWeBreathe ends with Aurin Squire’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” which is the longest play (at about ten minutes) and feels like the most developed. Lynn Whitfield and Esau Pritchett play an older couple who live through five days of the current crisis, recalling a lifetime of tragedy, including the circumstances in which Nina Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.” Their relationship is touching and subtly amusing, their recollections deeply sad, their attitude evolves into…hopeful?
#WhileWeBreathe is dedicated to Rev C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis, towering figures of the civil rights movement, both of whom died on July 17 of this year. “We follow you into good trouble.”
Birgundi Baker (“The Chi,” “Heathers”), Vanessa Bell Calloway (Coming to America, Letters from Zora), Bryan Terrell Clark (Hamilton, “When They See Us”), Neil Brown Jr. (“Insecure,” “SEAL Team”), Keith Eric Chappelle (“Billions,” Cyrano), Kevin R. Free (Dave, Eighth Grade), Alfie Fuller (BLKS, Is God Is), Marcus Henderson (Get Out, “Tacoma FD”), Chris Herbie Holland (What’s in a Name?, The Cancer Patient), Ty Jones (The Great Society, The Blacks: A Clown Show), Patina Miller (Pippin, “Madam Secretary”), Lori Elizabeth Parquet (Dispatches from (A)mended America, Rizing), Esau Pritchett (“Iron Fist,” “Prodigal Son”), Obie and Outer Critic’s Circle Award winner Michele Shay (Seven Guitars, Meetings), Hailey Stone (Matters of Chance, Nasir), Will Swenson (Jerry Springer: The Opera, Hair), TL Thompson (Is This A Room, Straight White Men), and Lynn Whitfield (“Greenleaf,” The Josephine Baker Story).
Lee Edward Colston II (The First Deep Breath, “For Life”), Arvind Ethan David (“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”), Cheryl L. Davis (The Bones of Giants, “Law & Order: SVU”), Nathan Alan Davis (Nat Turner in Jerusalem, “Sorry For Your Loss”), Steve Harper (“God Friended Me,” “American Crime”), Azure D. Osborne-Lee (Mirrors, Glass), Liza Jessie Peterson (The Peculiar Patriot, Bamboozled), Bianca Sams (At The Rivers End, “Charmed”), Keenan Scott II (Thoughts of a Colored Man, “A Luv Tale”), Aurin Squire (Fire Season, “Good Fight”), and Khari Wyatt (Stomping Down at Sugar’s Love, “Africana!”).
Steve H. Broadnax III (The Hot Wing King, The Hip Hop Project), Carl Cofield (The Bacchae, Antigone), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Armed, FEAST), Patricia McGregor (Lights Out, Nat King Cole The Public’s Hamlet), Pratibha Parmar (Nina’s Heavenly Delights, Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth), Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown: The Musical on Broadway, TV: OWN’s “Greenleaf”), Kirya Traber (Both My Grandfathers, Permitted), and Tamara Tunie (“Law & Order: SVU,” Flight).
CASTING BY: Venus Kanani, CSA and Stewart/Whitley
EDITED: AJ Francois, Aimee Jennings, Aric Lewis