A soaring new work about family, loss, art, and joy from Black queer actor and playwright Lee Edward Colston II has been wowing audiences at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. With just a few days left of its L.A. run, The First Deep Breath, which centers a Black family and features queer characters, is a critical addition to the American theater canon.
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, The First Deep Breath, loosely based on a family that Colston read about in a newspaper, tells the story of the Jones family of the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The play opens with the patriarch, Pastor Albert Melvin Jones III (Herb Newsom on opening night), taking the audience to church, literally, at the funeral of their daughter, whose cause of death won’t come to light until deep into Colston’s story.
In his outpouring of grief, the pastor mentions that his son Abdul-Malik (formerly Albert Melvin Jones IV) is imprisoned for an unforgivable crime — revelations about which are forthcoming. The play toggles from the church to an intimate family scene among the other living Jones children, AJ (Opa Adeyemo) and Dee-Dee (Candace Thomas), and Abdul-Malik’s close friend tasked with looking after his family in his absence, Tyree (Keith A. Wallace). The relative acceptance of life without Abdul-Malik gets shaken up with his return to the family home ahead of the holidays. The play revolves around family holiday preparations and gatherings. Adding to the drama is his father’s disavowal of him, his mother Ruth’s (Ella Joyce) dementia, and her sister Pearl (Deanne Reed-Foster) doing her level best to care for the family.
Addressing the universality of The First Deep Breath, Colston tells The Advocate, “Even though it’s a Black family at the center of this story, themes of love and loss and regret and generational trauma and forgiveness and healing aren’t necessarily culturally specific. I think that’s open to anyone regardless of culture.”
Broadnax, an acclaimed director who’s helmed works by Katori Hall and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks, shares that love is what drew him first to Colston’s epic play. “What compelled me first was love was at the center of this family, regardless of the situations they find themselves in. I could just see my own family.”
“The play is dealing with lies and secrets and how they can erode a family. But it was all based on this patriarch that was trying to do the best for his family the way that he knew how. And it was all centered in love. These people love hard,” Broadnax says.
Among the play’s many explorations is what Colston, a former MMA fighter and prison guard, calls “unhealed masculinity,” something that plays out in Abdul-Malik’s relationship with his father, his best friend Tyree, and his brother, AJ, and also in the play’s revelations of art as a means of healing.
“There are a lot of things we inherit as men — a performative version of what we think it is to be a man. Boys are programmed from children to perform their respective roles,” Colston says. He shares that during rehearsals, Broadnax sometimes wore a hoodie that read in bold letters, “Boys should cry.” Colston says the hoodie acted as a reminder to “be soft in a world that wants you to be hard. I believe embracing that softness, that healing. It just puts us in a better position to love one another with true empathy and true compassion.”
Watch The Advocate Channel’s full interview with Colston and Broadnax below. The First Deep Breath runs at the Geffen through March 5.