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Lee Edward Colston II is difficult to neatly define, and that’s by design. A former prison guard and MMA fighter who graduated from Juilliard’s inaugural acting MFA program in 2016, Colston has since pivoted to being an actor, writer, director and teacher. Now his play The First Deep Breath, a family drama set in Philadelphia that explores grief and the winding path toward healing, is making its West Coast debut Feb. 1 at the Geffen Playhouse.
The inspiration for the play — a drama about a Baptist pastor and his family — was a true story he read about: A family in Philadelphia, some 12 years ago, was plagued by tragedy during the holidays when a firearm the son had purchased for his father as a gift accidentally went off, killing the son. “At the time, I started asking questions like, ‘What creates the conditions for something like that to occur?’ ” Colston says. “My journey with this piece [which premiered in Chicago in 2019] is if you cannot foster empathy for people who look like you, for people who come from the same house you come from and who are literally sharing your DNA, how are you going to build empathy with people who don’t look like you, who don’t come from your community? I feel like the family unit is the foundation of our politics.”
For the Black, queer playwright, the production marks a return to the theater. Colston — who also performs in The First Deep Breath — is a co-producer on Ryan Murphy’s upcoming American Sports Story: Gladiator and in the process of developing a series with The Handmaid’s Tale producer Warren Littlefield. He previously wrote on FX’s Fargo (THR named his episode, “East/West,” one of the top TV episodes of 2020). “Because COVID separated us and segregated us, I’m just now starting to find my way back into the American theater,” he says. “L.A. seems like the perfect place to find my footing in this new world. I’m more interested in the connectivity that the play is offering than anything else, really. It’s just creating the space for human beings to share stories with each other.”
Colston, who grew up in North Philadelphia, had his first theater experience in high school when a teacher took him to see For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The then-17-year-old, enraptured by the play, told his parents that day, “I’m going to be an artist.” He wrote his first play, Solitary, a few years later, inspired by his time working in a prison in Philadelphia and by the men he met there.
“I approach storytelling through the lens of an actor, but it also just so happens to be through the lens of someone who’s able to wear multiple hats,” says Colston. “At the end of the day, the spine that connects all of these things is story. And if you understand story, you can unlock the world — not even just in an artistic sense, but as human beings.
“One of the significant motivating factors for me and my work is that I prioritize creating art that amplifies, edifies and examines the magic and mess of Black people,” he continues, “but what I find is that the deeper that I go into that, the more universal the stories become. Because when you zero in on the specific, the universal blooms.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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