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Antoinette Nwandu's Romantic Comedy Explores Race and Identity

''Breach'' premieres at Victory Gardens.

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Keith D. Gallagher and Caren Blackmore in a scene from Breach..., directed by Lisa Portes, at Victory Gardens Theater.
(© Michael Brosilow)

Although Antoinette Nwandu's Breach (subtitled "a manifesto on race in America through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate") is receiving its world premiere at Victory Gardens, it was actually written six years ago. No doubt interest in it was revived in the wake of Pass Over, Nwandu's incendiary take on Waiting for Godot that captivated Chicago audiences last year. But Breach lacks the subversive bite of Pass Over, and despite the lengthy subtitle, is neither poetic nor political. It's a romantic comedy, as straightforward as they come, and it comes complete with the love triangle, the meddling auntie, and the feisty best friend.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with a straightforward romantic comedy. And this one is not without its charms — chief among them its leading lady, Caren Blackmore, who plays Margaret, the titular black girl recovering from self-hate. Margaret is a messy piece of work. In her job at a community college, where she teaches freshman composition, she's cynical and competitive. In her relationship with her boyfriend Nate (Keith D. Gallagher), she is withholding and manipulative. "I don't date black guys," she reminds him with a smirk. At home, she bickers with her great-aunt Sylvia (Linda Bright Clay). She sees the world through a lens of disappointment and suspicion, and something's got to change.

Change comes in the form of Rasheed (Al'Jaleel McGhee), an educator with a troubled past (he did hard time as a teen) and big hopes for the future. Margaret can't stand his idealism, and they fight right up until they start kissing — and then they fight some more. When Margaret finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she is forced to self-assess and make some hard choices.

Breach doesn't set Margaret on a journey of discovery as much as it lurches from one teachable moment to another. The path laid out is predictable to anybody who loves Hallmark movies: Will she choose the hotshot career man with money on his mind, or the earnest guy who brings her flowers and charms her auntie? Like a TV movie, too, the supporting characters are broadly drawn and exist wholly for the protagonist's benefit. Margaret's unlikely friendship with cleaning lady Carolina (Karen Rodriguez) is heart-warming, but Carolina's troubles are only addressed to serve as a contrast to Margaret's, and if Rasheed has any interests beyond wooing Margaret, we never hear about them.

Though the characters are flat, the performances are anything but. Clay takes every wise old auntie trope and knits them into a warm and fully realized woman. Rodriguez, too, makes clear and specific choices that elevate Carolina out of the clichés she's rooted in. The men in Margaret's life are both compelling, thanks to Gallagher's slick charisma and McGhee's grounded sensibility. As Margaret, Blackmore shows deft comic timing as well as tender vulnerability, and she masterfully uses her voice to illustrate her overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, identities.

Director Lisa Portes stages the work simply, guiding the strength of the performances to take center stage. The set, designed by Linda Buchanan, is all sleek lines and shining surfaces , an abstractly versatile form that providing provides a palette for the saturated colors of Heather Gilbert's lighting. The result is contemporary, almost corporate, which is occasionally at odds with Breach's personal, intimate tone.

Breach is an agreeable but unremarkable romantic comedy, buoyed by a sharply introspective look at race and self-identity. While Nwandu's gift for language is apparent in every scene, the quippy dialogue doesn't take the play anywhere that hasn't been visited a dozen times before.

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