Saturday, October 10, 2015

Johnson's 'Breathe' Takes Your Breath Away

By Darlene Donloe

The show, Breathe, currently enjoying its world premiere at the Greenway Court Theater in Los Angeles, is not an easy show to watch. In fact, it is so intense that it can literally take your breath away.

A well-written drama peppered with poetry, Javon Johnson’s play centers on two families, one black, one white.

Life is good – until it isn’t.  Both undergo a life-changing situation that leaves the families broken and confused.
(l-r) John Marshall Jones, Lyn Michele Ross and Kamahl Naiqui

The Middletons, the black family, includes a proud father named Isaac (John Marshall Jones) and his equally proud wife, Loretta (Lyn Michele Ross), the parents of 17-year-old Andre (Kamahl Naiqi).  Andre is a good kid who has a great relationship with his parents.  Andre’s troubles begin the day his beloved, red bike that he bought with his own money – is taken from him. When he confronts the thief – his split second actions land him in prison where he receives a life sentence – devastating his parents.

Casey (Dutch Hofstetter) is the teenage son of the Flemings, John (Walter Cox) and Ellen (Carrie Madsen), a white, middle-income family. Casey also makes a wrong choice by inadvertetlj and is sent to jail.

Carrie Madsen and Dutch Hofstetter

Casey and Andre are cellmates. Their initial meeting is a bit strained, but eventually a friendship develops that eases the boys’ day-to-day restrictions. While locked up the boys discover how they’re as much alike as they are different.

Throughout the show the boys spit seriously tight lyrics like “Waiting to be called” and “Lost track of time” that reveal their desperation, their pain, their sorrow, their reality, their truth, their dreams, their loss, their despair, their beginning and their end.

(l-r) Lyn Michele Ross, John Marshall Jones, Dutch Hofstetter, 

Kamahl Naiqui, Carrie Madsen and Walter Cox

Meanwhile, back at home both sets of parents are trying to figure out what went wrong. Each family is riddled with guilt and shame, while pondering whom to blame. How did they fail as parents? Did they fail as How did they get here? How di they perpetuate the stereotype? How did they become part of the problem instead of the solution? How did their individual sons end up on the wrong side of the law? The questions are never really resolved. They only lead to other questions.

The play is layered with uneasy realism. How does a father deal with what he perceives as a loss of a son?  Why are fathers harder on their sons than they are on their wives? Why are mothers more emotionally available?  Why do teenage boys always feel the need for revenge when they’ve been wronged or disrespected? When is a boy a man? How do teenage boys face the possibility of living most of the rest of their lives behind bars? How do husbands and wives get pass this critical moment in their lives?
Dutch Hofstetter and Walter Cox 

Although the play is lengthy, it’s full and riveting with contemporary themes like revenge, incarceration, machismo, family dynamics, relationships, racism and guns.

Director Levy Lee Simon has assembled an impressive cast armed with talent worthy of the heavy lifting needed for this intoxicating turn.  

Kamahl Naiqui makes you feel every fiber of Andre. Wearing the frustration, fright and confusion of his character, Naiqui is all in, leaving nothing and everything on the stage. It’s a career-changing role.

Kamahl Naiqui and Dutch Hofstetter

There is no weak link in this production. Everyone gives solid performances. John Marshall Jones is effective as an emotionally drained father whose spirit has been lost. He’s a father who no longer knows how to love his only son. Lyn Michele Ross, Dutch Hofstetter, Carrie Madsen and Walter Cox give this heart-wrenching story its air.

The only thing left to do is Breathe. 

Breathe is wonderfully and vividly written by Javon Johnson and effectively and creatively directed by Levy Lee Simon, who makes good use of the stage and the theater.

The show is double cast.   The blue cast includes: John Marshall Jones, Lyn Michele Ross, Kamahl Naiqui, Dutch Hofstetter, Carrie Madsen and Walter Cox.

John Marshall Jones and Kamahl Naiqui

The red cast includes John Marshall Jones, Monifa Days, Brandon Armstrong, Blake Scott Lewis, Wade Barrett and James Giordano. Sammie Wayne IV is an understudy.

This review is for the blue cast.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Breathe gets an E (excellent).

Breathe, Greenway Theater, 544 N. Fairfax, LA 90036; 8 p.m. Wed.-Fri., through Oct. 23, Tickets: or 323 673-0544.

All production photos are by Ty Donaldson.

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