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BWW Review: BREATHE Takes Philicia Saunders on a Life-Changing Journey

Connecting the Dots To How We Become Who We Are

BWW Review: BREATHE Takes Philicia Saunders on a Life-Changing Journey
Philicia Saunders


Like most solo productions, Philicia Saunders' BREATHE comes from her own experiences. Unique to her telling however is the method by which she relates that story. Necessitated by a global pandemic that has forced audiences to view theatrical productions from behind a computer screen, Saunders has employed a variety of media to raise engagement with her personal tale.

The ambitious project fuses live theatre scenes - staged at The Broadwater in Hollywood - filmed segments, photographs, stylized movement, interview clips, and audience interaction to create a multidimensional experience. With less care, so many different elements might be overwhelming, but Saunders and director Roger Q. Mason have blended them subtly so each change makes sense. The seamless integration also benefits from Saunders' natural ease as a storyteller.

Saunders grew up in the wealthy Black neighborhood of Ladera Heights which meant she had opportunities and privileges others didn't, thanks to her hardworking parents. She went to private schools, excelled at gymnastics, tennis, and artistic swimming (what we used to call synchronized swimming) and was a classic overachiever who never imagined that one day she would be denied access to a nightclub in France for the color of her skin, or score a great job because she was the diversity hire.

And yet, there were still day-to-day slights she had to ignore...a classmate's insensitive comment, a casting director's thoughtless request, and even a teacher's baffling decision...all glossed over in order to keep up a good front.

In her classes she learned the bullet points of Black history: the American Civil War, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Jim Crow Laws, but it would be in life that she would first hear the names of the many individuals not found in history books; names like Caleb Gladly, Laura Nelson, and Thomas Miles, all of whom were unjustly lynched in this country.

It was a civil rights tour of Alabama that first opened her eyes. Seeing places like the Four Spirits sculpture memorializing four little girls killed by the KKK outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in1963 changed her. Later, interviewing Sweet Alice Harris, a community leader and woman who dedicated herself to healing Watts after the 1965 riots, would stir her to find her own truth on the road to becoming an activist.

BWW Review: BREATHE Takes Philicia Saunders on a Life-Changing Journey
Bible study with Sweet Alice Harris (one of many characters
played by Saunders in BREATHE)

Compelling content and a sensitivity to detail make BREATHE an insightful introduction for others to begin to understand what it's like to walk in another person's shoes. Much of that is attributed to the show's powerful images. Some are revealed slowly with the graceful elegance of an artist in control of every move, extending a still image into a three dimensional space. Others burst through quickly as the modern day actor dives headlong into a memory taking the audience with her to fully experience a moment in time.

In one of those images, Saunders steps into an image of a cross that begins to burn, a chilling moment underscored by the poignancy of Vince di Mura and David Gonzalez's original score. In another, she backs into a scene as a scared girl in the glare of a floodlight during a protest, exposing a headshot from behind her back when told by the police to show her hands. The contrast between what is assumed and what is real is appalling, particularly as shocking injustices continue to appear in the news even now on an almost daily basis.

The entire experience feels full and necessary, a thoughtful commentary on the inequities of the world we thought we knew but really never did. With artistic activism as her vehicle of choice, there is no doubt that Saunders will continue to make an impact with her voice.

For more about BREATHE, visit Outpost13.org.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mike Struna

BWW Review: BREATHE Takes Philicia Saunders on a Life-Changing Journey
Philicia Saunders on Carlo Maghirang's elaborate set, a wonderfully
cluttered space for Saunders to wind her way back in time.


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