Review: “Breach: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate”
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through March 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I really don’t know what to make of Antoinette Nwandu’s “Breach: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate.” Written six years before her controversial “Pass Over” presented by Steppenwolf last year, but just now receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens after a workshop at the 2016 IGNITION Festival, the ponderously titled play seems immature by comparison.
The plot veers from poignant to preposterous, and the characters are mostly caricatures, though that may partly be the fault of director Lisa Portes. She goes for broad interpretations, especially in scenes that are supposed to be comic—but that I don’t find funny at all.
Set in the present, “Breach” charts the evolution of Margaret (Caren Blackmore), a self-involved community college professor given to dramatic meltdowns. We first see her celebrating her promotion at a restaurant with her boyfriend Nate (Keith D. Gallagher), who has arranged for a little chocolate ganache cake for the occasion. But Margaret, or Maggie as he calls her much to her irritation, doesn’t feel celebratory. She feels all she’s gotten is a meaningless long title rather than the higher position she deserved and that went instead to Rasheed (Al’Jaleel McGhee), an ex-con who turned his life around and is now her boss. Practically her first words to Nate are that she told him not to get a cake.
It’s obvious from the outset that they are not made for each other. And not just because Nate is a rich workaholic white guy, while Margaret is African American and frustrated with her job. She is frank about liking his wealth and materialism, as well as determined not to get involved with a black man who might treat her badly and desert her like her father did her mother. The underlying problem is that they just don’t communicate well, despite the fact that, as we see later, he truly cares for her and wants to make her happy, even if he kind of thinks of her like property.
Margaret also is at odds with Rasheed, exacerbated by his sharing her office for a few weeks and her assignment to redo the curriculum with him. He’s an idealist; she’s become disheartened by the rejection of her ideas in the past. Naturally, sparks fly in their arguments, they kiss, one thing leads to another….and she discovers that she’s pregnant.
Margaret doesn’t tell Rasheed, though she eventually tells Nate, including the fact that he’s not the father, precipitating an angry breakup. Her 73-year-old Aunt Silvia (Linda Bright Clay), who has been living with her because high blood pressure has made her ill, figures it out. She doesn’t spill the beans to Rasheed when he stops by one evening to return Margaret’s grade book, but after hearing his back story, she decides he’s the man for her niece. (She never liked Nate anyway, even though it was her rants about Margaret’s father that turned the girl off black men, something that causes a big fight between them).
The other person who comes into Margaret’s life is Carolina (Karen Rodriguez), the very pregnant young Mexican cleaning woman. Their initial encounter is antagonistic, with the sassy Carolina ordering Margaret to clean up her own office because she’s vomited in the garbage can and thrown papers all over searching for the missing grade book, but soon they become fast friends, bonding perhaps over impending babies.
In arguably the play’s most bizarre scene, Margaret actually delivers Carolina’s baby, sort of. Rather than using her cell phone to call an ambulance as any sane person would, she weaves an elaborate fantasy about the two of them being pioneer women, while Carolina lies on her back on the floor telling her to shut up between screams. There’s no hot water, no cutting of the umbilical chord, nothing remotely realistic.
Maybe this absurdity is deliberate, but some oversights don’t make sense. One that bothers me: Margaret becomes nearly hysterical about her missing grade book, but after Rasheed delivers it to Sylvia who puts it in a drawer, it’s never mentioned again, and Margaret never learns where it is. Also, at the end, as she’s going on maternity leave, Rasheed mentions that she’s been made head of the English department with no explanation as to how or why.
Helped by Samantha C. Jones’ costumes, Blackmore makes Margaret’s transition from insecurity through anger to self-confidant womanhood believable, while the two men in her life play their roles reasonably well. Rodriguez’s screechy, overwrought Carolina comes across as an irritating stereotype, and portraying Aunt Sylvia as a cartoon senior with a dash of old sage is offensive to those of us who have reached a certain age.
Linda Buchanan’s set with a hint of Prairie School and Heather Gilbert’s flashy lighting serve the material fairly well by allowing for the rapid change of locations.
At its core, “Breach” is less about race and more about a woman who does things the hard way (like a breach birth) but manages nonetheless. It has its moments, but overall misses the mark for me.