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A girl is brutally beaten by her best friends in the opening scene of Kia Corthron’s drama Breath, Boom at Studio SecondStage. The beating is a birthday present of sorts—a way of saying “don’t leave us” to a girl-gang member who’d been bragging that she’d soon be quitting. Gang members don’t get to quit, even ones who are moms and realize that legal penalties get harsher when they turn 18.
Ordering the beating, and making sure it stops short of murder, is a steely 16-year-old named Prix. Her face impassive, her manner implacable, Prix wears a knit cap to hide the hair that would frame her face prettily. She looks like a thug and lives up to her looks. A rape victim at 5, a gang member at 12, a gang enforcer at 16, she’ll be locked in juvenile detention at 17, and all of this before she’s seriously into dealing crack. Played ferociously by Roxi Trapp Dukes Victorian, Prix would be the most despiriting heroine around had the author not given her an odd saving grace: a fondness for explosives of the nonlethal kind.
When not prowling the streets of the Bronx, or protecting her mother from the boyfriend who beats her, this hellion dreams of becoming a “fireworks artist.” She knows the chemical formulas that give color to flame and makes pipe-cleaner models of the chrysanthemum bursts that fill the sky on a hot summer night in July—“precisely planned chaos,” she calls them, as opposed to the looser chaos she helps to create on the street.
That street chaos is sinister in ways most theatergoers are likely to find unnerving, though Rahaleh Nassri’s stylized staging doesn’t make it nearly as threatening as it could. To a hip-hop beat, the director pivots Eric J. Van Wyk’s panels of chain-link fencing to create alleys, apartments, and jails, keeping things moving at a decent clip. But the very neatness of that staging device lends scenes the sort of studied formality that undercuts violence. A jailhouse suicide attempt, a hit ordered on the heroine, even a beating Prix receives that mirrors the one in the opening scene (by the daughter of the first thrashing’s victim, if I’ve got the relationships right) play out as a series of bumps on life’s road, rather than as a slide into hell.
These are gals who keep funeral scrapbooks, practice flipping double-edged razor blades with their tongues to impress boyfriends, and remember buddies by the drive-bys in which they were slaughtered. But though all are played competently, none of them except Prix and her mom (Monique Paige) register strongly.
And that doesn’t seem the fault of the writing, which is infused with street poetry— whether it’s re-creating the mind-set of crackheads or articulating the need for breaths between the booms in a fireworks display.