How to Break
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
October 23, 2012
At the beginning of How to Break, a new play incorporating beat-boxing, popping, breaking, and hip-hop verse currently playing at HERE Arts Center, audience members aren’t the only ones waiting. Amid the maze of sliding, hospital-green curtains that dissect the stage, a young girl dressed mostly in purple sits on the foot of a gurney, waiting too. An orderly enters with a cart and begins beat-boxing her vitals – heartbeat and breath layered on top of each other. The girl, Ana, soon finds out that she’s ill (as in sick), but then shows us how ill (as in really skilled) she actually is, popping while her doctor explains how leukemia works. The play that follows links those two meanings of illness, emphasizing that patience is part of both.
After her diagnosis, Ana soon meets Joel, a b-boy with sickle cell. How to Break follows both their growing relationship as well as the relationship between their doctor, Aden, and the hospital’s new artist-in-residence, Maddy. Playwright Aaron Jafferis intersperses realistic, prose dialogue with scenes written entirely in verse. And some of the turns of phrase and plays on double meanings really pop. When Joel first sees Ana, he says, “my heart breaks” and does a quick spin illustrating what he means by “break.” When Maddy sings a song using Emily Dickinson’s “hope is the thing with feathers,” Ana and Joel take it a step further, proclaiming that hope isn’t gentle like “a parakeet” but, rather, “hope is like a hawk.” The very idea of hope being something to hang onto is continually flipped here into something to be avoided, something dangerous. For the two central teenagers, hope, like inactivity, just means disappointment.
How to Break is part of HERE’s startHERE: Innovative Theater for Young People Program, and, when framed as a play for young audiences, is somewhat more successful. The script, while clever in its wordplay, metaphors, and structure, relies a bit too heavily on specificity of language as a substitute for specificity of character. It can be a little saccharine at times and, aside from a few quick details, we know very little about the four characters as individuals. They are, for the most part, archetypes (The Doctor, The Popper, The B-Boy, The Artist), vessels for some very eloquent expressions of ideas and feelings. But, the ways in which those feelings come through are nothing but genuine, sometimes bordering on ecstatically so. Much of the credit for this goes to the uniformly heartfelt performances.
Along with being skilled interpreters of Kwikstep and Rokafella’s understated choreography, Pedro Morillo and Amber Williams are great as the two ill teens. It’s surprising to see in his bio that this is break dancer Morillo’s acting debut. He finds a real charm and joy in playing Joel that allows us to fall for him as Ana does the same. He also finds Joel’s tremendous heart, especially in a section when he describes wanting to infect people with his love for life – to “contage people, uncage people.” The real light at the center of the show, though, is Williams as Ana. Moving fluidly between moments of real anger and real tenderness, her performance is lovely to watch. She’s equally convincing when she’s in a popping battle, ready to finish her challenger “with a pancake,” in silent moments as she resigns herself to treatment, and in finding her flow during the show’s 4-character rap “I’m Ill.” Dan Domingues and Roberta Burke provide solid support for the two teens and Yako 440 is literally the heart of the show as the orderly, Bowen, stunningly executing Adam Matta’s single-voiced beatbox score.
Along with the performances, the show’s excellent design plays off of the script’s exploration of double meanings. Nick Vaughan’s curtained set – some green and some clear, slid by performers along tracks throughout – both hides and reveals. Like the two teens, Vaughan and director Christopher V. Edwards only show us what they want us to see. Sometimes, the integration of visual media, like video, into a play can be somewhat clunky. But, rather than try to subsume what’s happening on stage, the video and graffiti design here blend perfectly with the action, sometimes as a backdrop, sometimes as an accent, sometimes as a mini-scene all its own. It’s impressive work by video designers Dave Tennent and Kate Freer and graffiti designer Part One.
Mostly, How to Break is a show about duality – how to reconcile what we want with what we know and what can be. It’s about how to move from anger and frustration toward positivity – from Ana’s feeling that “love is one pain after another/love is hope’s ugly grandmother” to Joel’s that “you have to rep the body God gave you, like repping the hood you’re from.” That movement may take waiting and patience. But, ultimately, how ill we are – in body and mind – is up to us.