Yvette Ganier in Breath, Boom(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Yvette Ganier in Breath, Boom
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
"You ever see the Fourth [of July]? Everybody's happy," meditates Prix, whose life Breath, Boom follows. Pretty soon, people in Manhattan will be crowding near the East River, drinking on rooftops, or taking the Circle Line to view the Macy's fireworks display. Across the country, explosions of neon color will light the skies, leaving clouds of smoke in their wake.

Prix (Yvette Ganier)--a character so real that she seems to exist outside of her play--will launch her own fireworks, with or without a nod from Giuliani. Illegal though it may be, her fireworks display gives the "original gangsta" Prix a healthy outlet for a girl who was raped by her father at age five, has been in and out of prison, and is now the head of a vicious girl gang. In a way, her life has been a series of explosions. Prix's friend Cat (Donna Duplantier) tells her "You're the coldest fish I know," but she doesn't know the half of it: When Cat prepares a makeshift noose and stands upon the brink of suicide, Prix coolly advises: "Jump."

This show is so dark that Prix's conversation with her dead father Jerome (Russell Andrews), recently murdered by her mother (Caroline Stefanie Clay), provides comic relief. Jerome enters this scene costumed in a bloodstained, wife-beater T-shirt. Instead of choosing easy pathos, playwright Kia Corthron has the characters poke fun at clichés of the father-daughter relationship. "You think you deserve a daughter-of-the-year award?" Jerome asks. "At least I always found something legal to do. Street cleaning... janitor." Andrews delivers these lines with great comic timing.

A few scenes earlier, we saw Prix hold a razor--which she had been hiding inside her mouth--to Jerome's throat. Prix learned of the hiding place from her gang, whose members practice flipping razors inside their mouths without cutting themselves. "The trick is to form a crust," Angel (Rosalyn Coleman) says. That crust is symbolic of their emotional calluses; this group is so comfortable with weapons that they practice the razor trick as if they were little girls jumping rope in a schoolyard.

The theme of robbed youth is stressed throughout the play, which comes to New York after a run at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Although the character of Cat is not a child, Donna Duplantier plays her with the infectious giggle of a very young girl on Ritalin, making the revelation of her prostitution all the more shocking. A prison inmate named Fuego asks Prix when she lost her virginity, and she replies, "When I was five." One character's 14-year-old daughter brutalizes Prix, who pleads with her, "I went to your christening!"

Attacking this and such other subjects as panhandling, crime, AIDS, and social unrest, the play could easily turn sanctimonious. Breath, Boom portrays cops as cold and uncompromising. One character describes prison as a "leper colony" in that there are so many HIV-positive inmates. Another tells of how her son was imprisoned for committing food-stamp fraud amounting to a total of $30 in order to feed his family, while "business people write off $200 lunches every day of the week." But the play's tone makes it more than a soap-box screed, and the commentary melds into the work instead of propping itself between the dialogue.

Thanks to the impending demolition of Playwright's Horizons' current home, set and lighting designer Michael Philippi was able to fully recreate the ghetto inside the studio theater. The Fab Five Freddy-inspired, graffiti-painted set extends into the audience; all doors have at least three locks, and chain fences line the perimeter of the playing area. Costume designer Katherine Roth layers the gang members with dark jeans, boots, and hooded sweatshirts, the height of hip-hop fashion. Sound designer Ken Travis makes use of hip-hop, rap, and even jazz anthems by such artists as Lauryn Hill, En Vogue, and Billy Holiday. But the music of John Philip Sousa, described by Prix as "two-bit, pansy crap," is not among Travis' selections. Though Prix waxes romantic about the Fourth of July, she has no fondness for "Stars and Stripes Forever," and thank God for that! Breath, Boom would have been quite a different play if she felt otherwise. Although people associate Sousa with fireworks, Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones" packs a lot more power.