‘In the Southern Breeze’ Review: A Dark Night of the Soul

In Mansa Ra’s heart-bruised new play, racism is a lethal force that menaces generations of Black American men.

The script for Mansa Ra’s heart-bruised new play, “In the Southern Breeze,” at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, has two epigraphs — one from the Amiri Baraka poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note,” the other from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Those opposing impulses — despair and perseverance — duel over the course of this dramatic dark night of the soul, which opens with a nameless contemporary American (Allan K. Washington), named simply Man, arriving home and stripping off the smile he wears, of necessity, in the hostile world outside.

It’s the expression he calculates, as a Black man, to signal that he’s both nonthreatening and educated enough not to be messed with. “The Obama Deluxe,” he calls it.

That little slam gets a big laugh. Only a few minutes in, humor is already a tension release in a show that will talk of suicide, slavery and the lethal force of racism in Black men’s lives throughout United States history. And Ra, like this show’s excellent cast of five, proves adept at lightning-quick switches between the crushing and the comical.

Tormented by anxiety, depression and panic attacks, the isolated Man is struggling to carry on. Submission to the unseen, ever-present noose that hangs over him — “Every Black man’s boogeyman,” he calls it — has begun to seem like a comfort.

“Sometimes it beckons me,” he says toward the end of that first scene, which, hearkening back to Baraka’s poem, Ra titles Volume 19. Volume 20 is this play’s other bookend. The longest of the three scenes — the surreal and moving center, in which Man does not appear — is Volume 1.

In a handsome production by Christopher D. Betts, all of it takes place on a grassy expanse stretching into the distance, with a spiritual, “Fare Ye Well,” as a solacing aural motif. (The set is by Emmie Finckel, the lighting by Emma Deane, the costumes by Jahise LeBouef and the sound by Kathy Ruvuna.)

As the play shifts into Volume 1, the wary, eager Madison (Charles Browning) enters, looking for the caravan that will take him north to meet his wife. It is 1780, as far as he knows, and he is running from slavery, barefoot.

But the first person he encounters is Lazarus (Victor Williams), a Tennessee sharecropper from 1892. Then a 1970s Black Panther named Hue (Biko Eisen-Martin) stumbles in, followed shortly after by Tony (Travis Raeburn), a young AIDS activist from the early 1990s. It takes most of them a while to figure out why they’re all gathered there, under that unseen noose, and how many eras have collided.

“Hold the phone,” an incredulous Hue says to Madison. “You really a slave?”

“Hold the what?” a baffled Madison replies.

“In the Southern Breeze” pays tender tribute to previous generations of Black Americans and bears unblinking witness to the white violence that has marred and menaced them. Hearkening back to that quote by Dr. King, it also acknowledges the progress toward justice through the ages.

This play is a more formally ambitious, far-reaching work than “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” with which Ra made his New York debut in 2017, when he was known as Jiréh Breon Holder.

What stumps him here, in Volume 20, is how to let his unnamed 21st-century Man reject existential exhaustion in a way that doesn’t seem pat. Like Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” rewritten for its recent Broadway run to allow more space for joy, this play wants to illuminate an uplifting path out of pain. But its final section turns muddled and didactic, its poeticism forced.

Finding hope, it turns out, is the tricky part.

In the Southern Breeze
Through Dec. 12, in person and streaming, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.

Source: Theater -


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