Review: Cygnet’s rap-informed ‘The Wind and the Breeze’ finds meditative rhythms
A bridge is usually the province of people in motion, but for the main character in the quietly probing and often surprising new play “The Wind and the Breeze,” it’s a place of repose and even refuge.
The limbo that our man Sam finds himself in proves to be soul-deep in this Cygnet Theatre world-premiere work by Nathan Alan Davis, a rising writer and recent winner of the prestigious Whiting Award.
Sam (Terrell Donnell Sledge) is the former reigning hip-hop emcee of Rockford, Ill., and the entire play — whose meditative, gently funny mood erupts into crisply delivered bouts of rap at times — takes place on a bridge over a river in his industrial hometown.
What he’s doing there, in the most literal sense, is both simple and confounding: He’s setting up shop to watch the city’s Fourth of July fireworks.
Thing is, it’s only February.
The absurdity of that setup can feel curiously at odds with the sense of realism that infuses much of the play, as Sam’s friends and fans come around to hang out and question and cajole him.
And while the play is often deeply affecting in the way it explores roads not taken, it’s hard not to wish by the end that we knew a little more about what drives this gifted but conflicted character, and what has made him so stuck.
It has to take a lot of skill and subtlety for actors to find the right rhythms for a piece like this, but for the most part Cygnet’s cast nails it.
Sledge, a San Diego native and Yale grad who’s been making his name mostly on the East Coast, makes Sam a deep well of sensitivity, joy and sorrow, masked by an ornery streak that seems a defensive pose.
Sam’s rapping reputation precedes him: His ambitious pal, Shantell (a witty and high-intensity Demetrius Clayton), tells newcomer Ana (Nadia Guevara, in a lively and funny turn) that people used to call Sam the “Bermuda triangle,” because people would try to battle him “and just disappear.”
We get a taste of that when Shantell tries to go up against him near the first-half climax of the 130-minute, one-intermission show; Sam shuts him down with a lacerating rap that makes clear he still has the skills.
“The Wind and the Breeze” — which is loaded with f-bombs, just so those with sensitive ears know — pivots on the attempts by Shantell, Ana, and Sam’s longtime friends Tea and Nia (Cortez L. Johnson and Chaz Shermil, both excellent) to head to Atlanta with them in pursuit of hip-hop stardom.
And another longtime friend, Ronda (Monique Gaffney), now a cop, likewise presses Sam to find something better. Gaffney, in a welcome return to the San Diego stage, owns the role of this flinty but sympathetic character.
The way Sam’s friends flit in and out of his life, and the way the play is shot through with silences, might remind you of Annie Baker’s likewise quietly potent stage piece “The Aliens,” or the loose-limbed feel of a movie like “Dazed and Confused.” (There are also shades of Chekhov and even Beckett.)
Sean Fanning’s set, with its diagonally jutting bridge and a city skyline looming behind, brings home a sense of place, heightened by R. Craig Wolf’s lighting, Shirley Pierson’s costumes and Steven Leffue’s rich sound design.
The show’s director, Cygnet associate artistic chief Rob Lutfy, has been shepherding this play for years, and he and the theater deserve credit for developing and premiering the unconventional piece, and for providing meaty and multidimensional roles for six strong actors of color.
Rousing raps aside, “The Wind and the Breeze” offers kind of the opposite of fireworks. Even when Sam, in a moving scene near the end, reveals the source of his affection for the Fourth of July show, it’s rendered with restraint and understatement.
But sometimes what sticks the most — in life or pyrotechnics — is the sense of anticipation, not the next dazzling flash.
‘The Wind and the Breeze’
When: 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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