By Darlene Donloe
LADERA HEIGHTS — From the mind of actress Philicia Saunders comes “Breathe.,” a solo experience a form of art activism fusing live performance, cinema, performance art and artistic swimming in a hybridized narrative.
If all of that sounds like a mouthful, that’s because it is, and it’s on purpose. Saunders has a lot to say.
“I wrote this during a time when things were shut down during 2020,” said Saunders, best known for her roles in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Black is King.” “I just sat back and thought, ‘I can make my own stuff.’ There’s a lot of material out there, it’s 2020, a time of social unrest. This was a good time to be creative.”
The show started out small and was originally a live theater event slated for the annual Fringe Festival last June.
“After the Fringe Festival was canceled due to the pandemic, I knew I still needed to do this show because it was so timely,” Saunders said. “So, I revamped the show so people could watch it on their computers. The swimming portion was pre-recorded.
“The show incorporates theater and film. This is a full-on production. It was a learning experience. I’m literally making a film and doing a play at the same time. They are all fused together.”
Birthed during what Saunders calls “galvanizing times,” “Breathe.,” directed by Roger Q. Mason, is the culmination of the recent political, racial and global unrest.
In the show, Saunders plays 20 characters including a younger version of herself as well as the person she is today.
“I play myself in high school and college,” Saunders said. “There is a part when I reenact what sparked the Watts unrest in 1965. I also play my mother and my father. It’s fun to see me play all the characters and then put them together on film interacting with each other. There are also some voiceovers included where I interact. I also play ‘Sweet Alice,’ who I interviewed in 2012.”
The show, written, produced, and starring Saunders, was also inspired by the mentorship of Sweet Alice (Alice Harris), a well-known Watts activist and community organizer.
The show, which took about 16 months to write, evolved from Saunders’ graduate school thesis project, the “Unsung Heroes Activist Project,” which, for her part, was a series of taped interviews she conducted with Sweet Alice in 2012.
“Sweet Alice told me, ‘You can’t just be silent and stand in one place,’” said Saunders, a Ladera Heights resident. “This show is about my life’s journey as a Black woman in America coming to terms with who I am. It’s about my identity, my community, how I grew up, and what’s going on in the world.
“You go through this world on a different path from others, sometimes not feeling connected to it. Now, at this moment, I have come to terms with my identity. This is a Black woman’s journey to being an activist. I learned about being who I am and owning my activism from Sweet Alice.”
During the time she was studying for her master’s degree in acting at UCLA, Saunders interviewed Sweet Alice and then did a show based on Sweet Alice’s organization, Parents of Watts, a local youth outreach group.
“When I interviewed Sweet Alice, I had a revelation,” said Saunders, who received a degree in East Asian studies from Princeton. “Maybe I’m not being as active in my community as I should. I developed an awareness. I needed to stop being complacent and be more active.
“In this world, this year, in the midst of it all, we need art more than ever. Proceeds from my show are going to Parents of Watts and Community Coalition.”
After writing the show, Saunders said it went without a title for months.
“It didn’t have a title for a long time,” she said. “For a while, I called it the ‘Untitled Sweet Alice Project.’ All I knew was that I wanted to do a one-woman show. In the beginning, I was looking at works that weren’t my own. It took a friend of mine to tell me I should do my own work. That work is ‘Breathe.’”
A horrific and traumatic event would provide Saunders with a name for her show. After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May she knew exactly what to call it.
“When the George Floyd murder happened, there was this huge social unrest going on,” Saunders said. “I found myself protesting in the streets. It was such a sad, sad, sad time. I listened to his last words, ‘I can’t breathe.’ That’s where the name of the show came from.”
Saunders said after listening to Floyd’s last words, she realized Black people had lived through numerous moments when they couldn’t “Breathe.”
“I went on a civil rights tour in 2018, for my job,” Saunders said. “I was in Alabama where slaves were sold on auction blocks. I went to the Selma bridge where Martin Luther King Jr. stood. I was able to reflect on being where my people were fighting to be seen and be welcomed. I went to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
“I went to the church where the four little girls died. There have been so many moments in our history of not being able to ‘Breathe.’”
Saunders said writing, producing, and acting in “Breathe.” was scary because she was exposing and sharing so much of her personal journey.
“Art activism, that’s where I’m starting,” she said. “I’m using my acting and writing to show what we all need to be talking about. Theater is so cathartic and amazing. My show, and making it available to everyone, create those conversations. Maybe it will inspire someone to be more active. Maybe it will inspire someone to vote, not to be silent, but be active. Through it all, I learned something. I can’t be a weak person. My people made me strong.”
The virtual premiere of “Breathe.” streams on YouTube live at 5 p.m. Dec. 11 and at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 12.
Encore performances with post-performance talkbacks will take place at 2 p.m. Dec. 13 (this presentation plays on Twitch and is pay-what-you can; Talkback is with Sweet Alice) and at 5 p.m. Dec. 18.
Registration is available at http://breatheshow.eventbrite.com on a sliding scale between $5 and $50 with a portion of the proceeds going to Sweet Alice’s nonprofit Parents of Watts and Community Coalition.
“Breathe.” is presented by Breathe Solo, Inc., Outside In & _Outpost_13.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.