You think your family has drama? Wait until you meet the Joneses.
The West Coast premiere of Lee Edward Colston II’s The First Deep Breath officially opened at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse last week. A ferocious modern epic, the production explores the lengths families will go to when burying secrets from the outside world and each other.
Following the Jones family, led by patriarch Pastor Albert Jones, while organizing a memorial service to mark the sixth anniversary of daughter Diane’s death. When their estranged eldest son, Abdul-Malik, comes home from prison, the family’s mask of perfection begins to break down as family secrets spill forth.
The First Deep Breath first premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater in 2019 and received critical acclaim as “one of the best Chicago plays of the decade.”
Colston is a Black, queer, former prison guard and MMA Fighter turned actor, writer, director, teacher, and author. He was a finalist for the 2017 IAMA Theatre Company’s Shonda Rhimes Unsung Voices Playwriting Commission and a recipient of the National Black Theatre’s I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency, and he has developed projects with FX and HBO.
Instinct caught up with the rising star to talk more about The First Deep Breath, as well as his decision to pursue entertainment full-time, performing his own work, and upcoming projects.
Thank you for taking some time to chat with me, Lee! How excited are you for the West Coast premiere of The First Deep Breath?
Man, I am over the moon. I think this is a moment in the theater, and I’m learning a lot about this work and its relationship to the world. How it impacts community in a richer and deeper way. I’m just very, very humbled and inspired.
Can you talk more about what inspired you to write this production?
There were a couple things. I read this heartbreaking story in a newspaper years ago about a family, and I was deeply moved by it. This family was in crisis, and their relationships boiled to a flashpoint. I wanted to know, how did we get there? That coupled with another play that inspired me. It was an American family drama that had a whole bunch of white folks in it, and I was like, this is incredible. I can’t wait until they do an all-Black production of this play, so as an actor, I can be in something like that.
Then I kind of heard myself say, why do I have to wait? Why should I have to wait for some theater company to do an all-Black production of this play? Surely someone has written a Black family epic that centers Black stories that aren’t necessarily bogged down by poverty or racism. Just a Black family dealing with Black family issues, that more often than not, are universal family issues for all different types of people, no matter what cultural background your family is. I went hunting for that play.
I was a first year at Juilliard at the time, so I talked to my teachers, and they couldn’t really direct me to the type of piece that I was looking for. They would direct me to August Wilson’s work, which as wonderful as August Wilson’s work is, most of his characters are wrestling with poverty. Then there were other plays that I was being pointed to, but those plays centered on white people, racism, and white folks’ foolishness. I didn’t want to engage in those types of stories.
I was like, where are the stories that exist outside of the purview of whiteness? Where are the stories that exist outside of keeping Black folks relegated to a certain class that just centers on a Black family dealing with Black family issues? A piece that is written in the traditional epic family drama format. I couldn’t find it. So, like most things, I said, cool. I’ll do it myself, and that was kind of the launchpad into this.
What do you ultimately hope audiences take away from the show?
Ultimately, this is a play about healing, so I hope people walk away from this show with a deeper understanding of themselves and what their responsibility is in their family to be change agents. You can’t be a change agent in your own family by changing other people. You can only be a change agent in your family by changing yourself and being honest with yourself.
Where do you need to be held accountable? Where do you need to tell yourself the truth?. Where are the places you’re not setting boundaries? Where are the places where you’re not willing to see the people in your family in a way where more than one thing can be true at a time. Someone can cause harm, and someone can be struggling with tremendous pain. Both of those things can be true at a time.
This play, in my opinion, is a political play disguised as a family drama, because the family structure is the foundation of which our politics are formed. If we’re not able to offer radical empathy and compassion to people who look like us, to people who come from the same community that we come from, to people that oftentimes come from the same house that we come from, to people that we share DNA with, how the hell are we going to offer empathy and compassion to people who come from different walks of life than we do?
Not only did you write The First Deep Breath, but you are also starring in it. Can you tell us more about your character?
I play Abdul-Malik. He is a man with a lot of secrets, and a man who’s coming home from a really intense chapter in his life. He’s the eldest son of the Jones family, and he’s a deeply sensitive man who radiates masculinity and this toughness of the streets, but he also has a huge and tremendously soft heart. He’s returning home from prison after serving time for a despicable crime, and he’s trying to reinvent himself inside of this family structure. However, to do that, he has to be brave enough to name truths that he hasn’t been able to name yet.
Is it challenging for you to perform in something that you wrote?
Absolutely. This is my first time doing my own work. I didn’t write this play thinking, oh, I would go out and do this play. I originally wrote it as, oh, I would love to do something like that, but I didn’t think I would actually jump into my own thing. I said this in the rehearsal room a billion times, as we go back and reread and dive deeper into the material, I told the cast, do not make the mistake of assuming that I know what’s in this play because I wrote it. I find myself, like the man who wrote this play, he doesn’t exist anymore. It’s a version of myself from years ago, so I find myself trying to figure out, what were the playwright’s intentions? I don’t remember.
As I do a deeper dive, I’m like, man, I didn’t realize that was in there. What was I thinking when I wrote this? It feels like a conversation between the present Lee and past Lee, which is very interesting because I’m discovering gifts that past Lee secretly baked into this process for future Lee to discover. Then I also have so many questions for past me. Like, what was the motivation for this particular choice? There are some things I just don’t remember, but that process of negotiating between yourself and various moments of time is really fascinating to me. It’s something that I’ve never experienced before, and I’m excited to see what comes next.
Have you always had a passion for theater?
I would say so. I got introduced to the theater when I was a teenager when I went to see a production of For Colored Girls by Ntozake Shange. I had never really been to the theater before, and it was a life-changing experience. I was sitting in the back of this theater in my hoodie with my arms crossed, frustrated that I had to see this play. Then by the end of it, something had been ignited in me, and it hadn’t been extinguished yet. I don’t think it ever will.
You are a former prison guard and MMA fighter. When did you decide to pursue acting and entertainment full-time?
I had gotten injured while I was working at the jail. My hand got smashed in one of the mechanical doors, and it messed my hand and wrist up pretty bad. But while I was working at the jail, I had written my first play. Since I was recovering, I was like, why don’t I produce and direct it? So, I rented this space in this hole in a wall theater in North Philly, and I produced it, put it up, and people came. This was also during the time while I was training as a fighter, because that was a huge passion of mine.
At one point in time, I had dreams of going pro, but I had to decide between whether I was going to be an artist full-time or a fighter full-time, because I don’t think you can do both. They both require full and intense investment, rigor, and commitment. I remember being at the gym and hitting the heavy bag one day, and one of my instructors came over and introduced me to this gentleman, who he had known as a fighter.
It was this transformational moment for me because when he introduced me to this guy, and he was maybe in his 50s or something like that, he wasn’t old at all, but when he stuck out his hand to shake mine, he had the shakes. That really rattled me. I was listening to my instructor go on and on about how great a fighter this guy was and how much I reminded him of him, but I couldn’t reconcile that there was a physical cost and toll on his body. I remember really sitting with that.
Then I went to work at the jail, and after I came home, I watched Shawshank Redemption. I was watching Morgan Freeman, who seemed to be as old as life and in his prime, give this extraordinary performance. It became very clear to me that I had a choice in front of me. I can spend the rest of my life destroying, or I can spend the rest of my life creating. Creation has a longer shelf life, better than I would have if I continued fighting. I still love the sport and I miss it, but I’m very happy with the decision that I made.
You are also currently co-producing Ryan Murphy’s American Sports Story, as well as developing a new series with The Handmaid’s Tale producer Warren Littlefield. What can you tell us about these projects?
The American Sports Story project is about Aaron Hernandez. He used to play for the New England Patriots, and this is the rise and fall of his story. It’s an American tragedy, and in my opinion, I think the show is going to be a spectacular piece of work. The other project, I’m not at liberty to discuss the details right now, but I’m having an incredible time working with Warren and the Littlefield team. They’ve been nothing but supportive, encouraging, and nurturing of my work and artistry. It’s nice to work with people who really believe in you.
What are some future goals you hope to accomplish with your career?
I would love to take this show to New York because I think it’s ready. I would also love to crack more into film and television. I’m a multi-hyphenate. I’m not the type of artist that only does one thing. I do a lot of things very well, so it’s my hope that my career flourishes in a way that I’m able to switch hands whenever I want to. Whether that’s me directing something, writing something, acting in something, producing something, or doing all four at the same time. I love being able to switch hats because I’m a storyteller, and I hope to provoke some important conversations so that we can better connect with one another and better understand each other.
Stay up-to-date and connect with Colston by following him on Instagram. For more information and to purchase tickets for The First Deep Breath, visit GeffenPlayhouse.org.