Play explores hope amidst violence

The Yale Heritage Theatre Ensemble’s “Breath, Room,” tells the story of a
gang leader coping with violence.
The Yale Heritage Theatre Ensemble’s “Breath, Room,” tells the story of a gang leader coping with violence. Photo by Ken Yanagisawa .

The Yale Heritage Theatre Ensemble will stage the story of a gang leader trying to remain hopeful in a violent world.

“Breath, Boom,” written by Kia Corthron, opens tonight at the Morse-Stiles Crescent Theater. The play follows the character Prix — a 16-year-old leader of a female gang in the Bronx, N.Y. Amidst the violence that pervades her daily life, Prix dreams of becoming a fireworks show designer, though she does not know if she will ever be able to leave her violent past behind. Zora Howard ’14, the director of the production, said the play focuses on the characters’ ability to maintain a sense of hope for a brighter future in the face of extreme adversity.

“Breath, Boom” embodies the Heritage Theatre Ensemble’s mission of producing shows that illuminate voices and perspectives often overlooked at Yale, Howard said. Nya Holder ’16, who plays a gang member called Malika, added that relatively few students at Yale have personally experienced gang violence and that the production targets mainly those who cannot directly relate to it. The play reminds us that we should not take certain parts of our lives — such as having supportive families — for granted, Holder explained. Gineiris Garcia ’16, who plays a gang member called Comet, noted that the audience is tempted to sympathize with the characters despite their often violent and disagreeable behavior, which prompts viewers to examine these actions from a new perspective.

“This play is about realizing a different world, a world that is the opposite of what most of us have experienced,” Garcia said.

Though she cannot personally relate to many of the characters’ experiences, Garcia said, she does know people who have gone to jail multiple times, gotten pregnant at a young age or been involved in gang life, all of which are present in the play. Holder explained that her mother provides help to adults who have abused drugs and alcohol during their childhood and adolescence.

Howard noted that the characters are strongly attached to their hopes and aspirations because they have full control over them — a level of authority they lack in other realms of their lives.

“It’s a story about the idea that in spite of trauma, neglect and abuse, we can still find it in ourselves to hold on to our dreams,” Howard said.

Howard explained that the plot revolves around a group of teenage girls who must balance their family lives with their involvement in activities such as illegal drug trafficking, assault and homicide — a lifestyle that most adolescents never need to experience. These 14-15 year old girls, she said, have to constantly deal with domestic abuse, homelessness, jail, family commitments and the risk of being killed. It is not surprising that the girls keep their dreams alive in such circumstances given that everything else is constantly endangered, Howard said, noting that the characters have nothing to hold on to except for hope.

“Death is a very present theme in the play,” Howard said. “All the characters interact with it in some way. These dreams are the only things that cannot die.”

Kyra Riley ’16, who plays Prix, said her character’s dream of designing fireworks shows stems from her belief that after each fireworks explosion, there is a moment of peace and silence — a feeling she cannot experience in her daily life. Between her gang activities, her sexually abusive stepfather and her negligent mother, Prix constantly finds herself in a chaotic environment, Riley explained. Garcia said her character dreams of having a family that loves her. She noted that the other gang members view Comet only as someone they are obligated to take care of, adding that Comet misinterprets her fellow gang members’ attitudes towards her as genuine affection.

Holder highlighted the role gender plays in the production, noting that she thinks Corthron deliberately centered the piece on an all-female gang. The reason why girls such as these characters join gangs is usually connected with men in some way — they do it to either acquire power over men, to be with men they love, or to assume a position in a gang left by a deceased male family member, Holder explained. Riley said that Prix joins a gang in order to be financially independent of her mother’s boyfriend, who sexually abused Prix throughout her childhood.

All four ensemble members interviewed said they think the play is particularly powerful because the characters and events accurately depict the lives of many people who live in crime-ridden urban environments.

The Yale Heritage Theatre Ensemble was founded in 1979.

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