Just Breathe?

The light is low, and almost alive. Behind a tarp, four figures pose unstuck in time, arms and legs casting long, snake-like shadows from floor to ceiling. Mouths open; swelling, cacophonous song fills the theater. A narrator describes their predicament: they must leave their homes by powerboat, and make it to another shore. The violence at home is too great to stay.

The question looms: will they sink, or swim, or drown? And who exactly are they, anyway?

So begins One Big Breath, an affecting and experimental take on the refugee crisis from playwright Josh Wilder and director Jeremy O. Harris. Running now through Saturday at the Yale Cabaret, the show kicks off the Cab's 50th season with renewed dedication to nonlinear narrative, underrepresented stories, and a certain permission to fail.  

At its core, One Big Breath is a refugee story. Or many refugee stories. After an initial group of four is separated at sea, the play operates in a series of vignettes, a narrator guiding us to each marooned voyager and watching their fate unfold. It’s not an easy task: lovers have been torn apart, ready to cross barriers linguistic and mortal to be with each other again. Family members don’t know where the rest of their crew has gone. Fear is everywhere, radiating off bodies with a clammy warmth. 

 Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

There are handfuls of parallel narratives. Bodies dead and alive wash up on the sand. A reporter worms her way into a refugee’s new school, assaulting her with questions before first period is over. We tiptoe on the hard edge of discomfort as photojournalist arrives at the site of washed up bodies, the click of her camera almost intolerable. There’s even a lesson on the nervous system, and the steps it takes to protect the body from drowning. Each actor slips into multiple roles, transitioning from stranded swimmer to bizarre game show contestant in only moments. 

In this way, One Big Breath is more of a working draft than a finished piece. In its collision of worlds real and unreal, it seems like two plays sandwiched into one. They knock against each other, intrusive and loud, but never fully come together. In one play, Wilder is overly beholden to current affairs, and a few transitions are choppy, although not overwrought. In another, he has let his theatrical guard down, and opened the floodgates to the wonder and heartbreak that may come rushing in.

Some choices take up too much air. Two rotating, scuba-clad narrators—half-ghost, half-spirit guide, with a seeming nod to Detroit electropop group Drexciya thrown in—don’t quite work. They are conceptually interesting (Mika Eubanks has devised some wonderfully inventive costume design) but end up distracting, using verse where movement and mouth sounds are enough.    

 Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Same with a scene on the bounds of human language. On a shore, actors Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and Patricia Fa’asua face each other, poised to speak. As far as the eye can see, they are the only two souls in sight. Which is fine, until they open their mouths and realize they can’t understand each other at all.

It is smart and darkly funny—reminiscent of Shadi Ghaheri and Chalia aTour’s فریادا at last year’s Satellite Festival. Fa’asua uses a slurred, slowed English that immediately strikes a nerve. But it feels somehow out of place for the work, too easy an out for what Wilder is trying to accomplish. Ultimately the scene does do something new: When McKenzie realizes she is totally isolated, and plunges back into the water to die, her weeping is enough to bring you to your knees.  

That’s the tradeoff with new pieces, and it’s one worth having. When One Big Breath works, it is extraordinary and compelling. Not only is Wilder’s heart in the right place; his head has also done the work to follow. So has dynamic director/producer pair Jeremy O. Harris and Al Heartley, and a strong creative team. 

From the play’s first moments, characters (and the designers behind them, no doubt) make tremendous use of light and shadow, casting their bodies against the tarp with grace and urgency. As the tarp comes down with a great, destructive rip, it too becomes a character. McKenzie wraps it around her as a sort of dizzying, inevitable sea-clothing. Second year Jakeem Powell and Catherine Maria Rodriguez fumble and fall upon it in their final moments. As it is tacked back up — only to fall again — characters emerge from underneath it, their lives hanging in the balance. 

 Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Meanwhile the addition of folksong, overlapping voices and lyrical dance (Summer Cab favorite Ghaheri has returned as choreographer) lets us see the crisis with new eyes. These are friends, family members, artists, lovers, students of life’s greatest hurdles. And we, present with them for exactly 42 minutes, have a stake in their lives. 

Or, their deaths. No table or high-backed chair in the audience is ever more than feet away from an actor, and some attendees find themselves at arm’s length. There’s an incredible intimacy there, making inescapable the rigors of flight and migration, the fear or perishing at sea.  

By the end of the show, Powell has given himself over to it, in a trance-like state as he dances from the stage to the audience, and to his farewell from the world. So too has Catherine María Rodríguez, whose hands-off waltz with Powell sucks the air clear from the room.

In the silence that follows the show—no curtain call, in a decision that feels truthful to the subject matter—viewers are left to grapple with what happens when a resolution is not a resolution, but an untimely end. One choice, of course, is to leave the theater for the wide sky, where air is plentiful and land stretches out for miles before reaching the water. 

But there’s another, too. To linger for just a moment. To take one big breath, followed by another, and another. To ask: If I am here, what will I do to leave a mark?

The Yale Cabaret is on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Remaining performances of One Big Breath take place Friday and Saturday at 8 and 11 p.m. at the Yale Cabaret on Park Street. Ticket and show information here. To listen to an interview with Wilder from earlier this year, click on or download the audio above.

Lucy Gellman