At Cygnet Theatre, ‘The Wind and the Breeze’ explores the meaning of home
In the words of the Clash — a rock band, yes, but one that knew a little about rap: “Should I stay or should I go?”
That’s the pressing question (or one of them) at the center of “The Wind and the Breeze,” a rap-inflected work by the playwright and now TV scribe Nathan Alan Davis that’s about to get its long-in-the-making world premiere at Cygnet Theatre.
It’s an impressive coup for the Old Town company to shepherd the first full production of this play by Davis, a recent recipient of the Whiting Award for emerging writers — an honor previously bestowed upon the Pulitzer Prize winners August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks and Tony Kushner.
And it’s a big moment for Davis, too, as he debuts this very personal work about the pull of home vs. the pressure to find one’s place out in the wider world.
“The Wind and the Breeze” centers on a young man named Sam, the top hip-hop emcee in Rockford, Ill., who feels an abiding attachment to his home turf.
“I think in a lot of ways, it’s a play about the tension between who you were and who you want to become,” says Davis, speaking by phone from L.A., where he’s writing for the new BET Network series “American Soul.”
“I set it in my hometown of Rockford, Ill. I was thinking a lot about what it means to be from somewhere and to leave that place, and who and what you leave behind. There are good and bad things about that.”
And Sam “is somebody who doesn’t want to leave. His stance is, look, why do all those big, important dreams have to be about going away? When can you be satisfied with what’s actually around you?
“And the other characters are kind of pushing in the other direction.”
Unlike Sam, Davis observes, “I’m someone who did leave my hometown” — first for the University of Illinois and grad school at Indiana University, then to the East Coast, where he graduated from the Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program.
Davis ultimately would have plays commissioned and developed at such influential companies as the Public Theater, the McCarter Theatre Center and Arena Stage.
“The Wind and the Breeze” was getting a workshop at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital six years ago when Davis first met Rob Lutfy, now Cygnet’s associate artistic chief and an early fan of the play.
Davis credits that support for the play’s eventual path to Cygnet, where it received a Bill and Judy Garrett Finish Line Commission in 2016 to help propel it to a full production.
“I really trusted Rob’s judgment; I think he genuinely believes in the play and is an advocate for the play,” Davis says. “So for me, it was a really easy decision (to premiere it here), when someone is that much of a supporter of the work over time.”
At a Cygnet reading last year, Davis adds, “the audience feedback was quite strong, in terms of the way people felt they could relate to the characters. People were saying, ‘Oh, this reminds me of my friend, this reminds me of my dad,’ you know what I mean?
“I think that’s what the play is meant to do; it’s meant to touch people on a personal level.”
Someone else who, like Davis, didn’t wind up staying put in his hometown: Terrell Donnell Sledge, who plays Sam in “The Wind and the Breeze,” and who happens to be from San Diego.
The Cygnet show, in fact, is the local professional debut for Sledge, a Yale University grad (and Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA) who has built a busy stage career in New York and around the country, and who likewise now lives in L.A.
Sledge was first exposed to theater when he’d tag along for his older brother’s drama classes at Community Actors Theatre, a longtime cultural institution in the San Diego neighborhood of Oak Park.
The graduate of the Francis Parker School has returned to San Diego plenty of times, but it took Davis’ play to bring him back here as an actor. (He’s joined in the cast by Cortez L. Johnson, Chaz Shermil, Nadia Guevara, Demetrius Clayton and Monique Gaffney.)
“I think one of the beautiful and exciting things about it is it’s a piece that allows you to see characters be their truly authentic selves,” Sledge says.
“It always makes me think about close family. There’s a different wavelength of communication with people who’ve known you your entire life — who know your weaknesses and strengths and can hold you accountable.
“These characters do it so honestly and truthfully that it can be a little scary.”
Rap and poetry play key roles in the piece: Sam “grew up in a community that very much values hip-hop culture and the rap-battle, hip-hop world,” Sledge says. “And he’s the best that ever was, as far as that community is concerned.” (The first act actually concludes with a rap battle that turns into a concert.)
And for Davis, “hip-hop music and culture has been a huge influence, and continues to be. Just the way that people are able to express themselves using wordplay and language and metaphor. It’s very malleable poetry that can shift and grow and expand and change.”
The conflict facing Sam, the playwright adds, is part of “an important conversation about life in general — to make space for people who make different choices in their lives.”
Flying high and traveling far are noble goals, but “I don’t think that’s the only way to live,” much less to find happiness, Davis says.
“I think the play hopefully has a nuanced conversation about that. And gives people a truthful window into that idea.”
‘The Wind and the Breeze’
When: In previews. Opens Saturday. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 10.
Where: Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town
Phone: (619) 337-1525
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