This has been a year of increasing woke-ness, and actor/writer/producer Philicia Saunders shares her own journey in Breathe. Saunders grew up in Ladera Heights being told by her parents, “You can be whatever you want.” Her mother, from Roanoke, Virginia, and her Jamaican father made it a priority to give their two daughters a kind of privileged childhood they hadn’t had.
Saunders attended the private Brentwood school, where she studied facts about black history but seems to have been more worried about her grade than the lessons’ content. In 2007, she was at Princeton, where she passed on taking African-American Studies (“AS”) with Cornel West. She had an Ivy League education but felt that something was still missing. It turned out to be woke-ness.
Then Saunders was selected to go on a “Good Trip” to Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, where she wondered if she deserved her spot. She admits this was not a trip she would have taken if she hadn’t been “magically chosen.” Later experiences reinforce bigotry and a sense of tokenism that come as a surprise to her. She starts to question her own worth, asking if she was accepted into a prestigious MA program because she was black. She admits she felt disconnected from African-American history and “not awake.”
Because she learned about the Middle Passage, Jim Crow, lynchings, Martin Luther King, and other key elements of African-American history from books and a tour rather than from family and community, Saunders comes across as startlingly naïve. When the Black Experience hits home, she soaks it all in. She writes a dissertation about Watts community organizer “Sweet Alice” Harris and incorporates the interview material into Breathe. When Sweet Alice shows up, the show comes alive, shifting from multimedia lecture to local heroine Sweet Alice’s deeply felt personal tale.
This one-woman show, originally scheduled for the 2020 Fringe Festival, was shot at Hollywood’s Broadwater Theatre. The set features rows of file cabinets that serve as a projection screen. Written and shot during the 2020 lockdown, Breathe nevertheless manages to feel wide in scope. Segments shot on location are interspersed with the staged performance. Saunders works hard throughout the show, changing into numerous costumes including chains, performing modern dance movements, and playing 20 characters, including Sweet Alice. Director Roger Q, Mason helps guide the show as it builds and finds its message.
Saunders notes toward the close of Breathe, “You can’t just be silent and stay in one place. Sweet Alice taught me that…I must continue to fight.” Things that are seen cannot be unseen. Saunders, like so many, has been changed by stories of pain and cruelty. Through this show, she begins to find her way as an activist and performer.
Breathe had a limited run and will be reprised in early spring 2021. In the meantime, you can view a trailer here.