Above: Dan Domingues as Aden and Amber Williams as Ana
How to Break, HERE’s most recent production, centers on the revolving story of a doctor, 2 patients (one with leukemia, the other with sickle-cell anemia) and a well-meaning artist in residence at a hospital. The show, while focusing on hip-hop, freestyle culture, more complexly focuses on the decision facing a person, particularly a young person, with a fatal disease and a moment of “breaking” for both strength and freedoms sake.
The show itself is incredibly well suited for adolescents (highly recommend for high school classes,) slightly dull at times for the older crowd, but Jafferis writing is fast paced, funny, if never completely emotionally raw. Part of this may be the nature of utilizing freestyle throughout the piece. While this is definitely a central component in understanding a big part of the “break” of the piece, at times it makes difficult moments funny or more lighthearted than necessary. For anyone who has had, or known someone with cancer, you can’t help but wonder when the true “break” is going to happen and think that when it does…it’s probably not going to rhyme. That being said, grain of salt included, we all cope in our own ways and Christopher V. Edwards says in the director’s note “Everyone involved in the initial collaborative process has been inspired by hip-hop. Some of us breathe it and eat it for breakfast….” so it’s hard to fault her for utilizing freestyle throughout the piece that is based on it. Likewise, the age of the patients also make the flirtatious insult on the playground behavior more realistic and the piece itself, written in part by actual hospital patients through the Mixing Texts Collective project, does speak to Jafferis claim to portray “breaking” as “inspiration, courage, and possibility.”
The standout actors included Dan Domingues and Amber Williams who portray both the over involved doctor (a bit of a fantasy no doubt) and leukemia ridden Ana, popper, design student, and love interest of Joel played by Perdro Morillo, a professional break dancer who is admirably comfortable in his first acting role.
The set, a series of medical curtains that range from translucent to opaque were used to highlight the beatboxer Yako 440, playing a nurse character who provided beatbox accompaniment (written by Adam Matta) and sometimes comic relief, as well as the canvas for graffitiesque sketches. Yako 440 definitely could have been utilized more fluidly with the other characters on stage. One of the most interesting moments comes at the start of the play when he tells Ana to “breathe” into the microphone and creates a series of loops from it. And while the setup was interesting and the cast navigated the curtains flawlessly, the opening and closing did at times get distracting. Likewise one wanted to see more physical moments to accompany the soundtrack which was often lost behind the curtains.
Overall this piece feels like a very dynamic moment set within the context of a beautiful but sometimes misunderstood artistic culture, as well as the experience of facing mortality head on. What is lacking is visceral emotion, is often made up for in surprising moments of writing and acting, and it’s this combination that speaks to the strength of the creators and the cast.