LOS ANGELES — “This is me and my grandmother,” Lee Edward Colston II said while pointing to a framed photograph that sits on a side table.
The table is on the second-floor landing of a set at the Geffen Playhouse, almost in the wings. No one in the audience will see it, but Colston knows it’s there.
“And that was important to me,” he said.
Colston’s play, “The First Deep Breath,” is dedicated to his Nana, Yvonne Colston, who died in 2016. Her words are quoted on the first page.
“Be brave, baby. The world can handle it,” it reads in bold.
“She’s an important pillar of my life,” Colston said. “She spoke life into me.”
Colston was a theater major at Community College of Philadelphia and had a passion for the arts. But his father — who he describes as a pragmatist — encouraged him to follow his footsteps into a more stable career as a corrections officer. He did.
“I was scared to disappoint my dad,” he said. “I didn’t know what else I could do. And there weren’t really any pathways for me to find my way as an artist.”
Colston’s time in corrections ended up shaping him in ways he never expected. Some of that is reflected in his play, a family drama making its West-Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. This is the first time Colston is also acting in the play, portraying a man returning home after being incarcerated. The character is fictional, but the impact the inmates had on the playwright and actor is very real.
“While I was an officer, I had the pleasure and the privilege to meet every single man I will write about as a writer and every single man I will play as an actor,” Colston said. “I think you learn a lot about humanity, by how a society treats the people that it holds. And it tells a lot about our society as a whole.”
Some of the men became mentors and recommended books for him to read. They prodded him about his writing and encouraged him to apply to Julliard, which he did five times before he was finally accepted in the MFA program. And all the while, he listened to them and learned.
“It’s hard to hate people up close. It’s hard to pass judgment on people up close,” said Colston. “Some folks are incarcerated for doing things that are really terrible. And some people have been exploited by a system that that feeds on chewing up Black bodies, who more often than not are poor people who are being exploited in neighborhoods that are hyper-policed.”
There are many plots happening simultaneously in “The First Deep Breath” — death, dementia, denial, dysfunctional family dynamics — but at its core, Colston — who also wrote for the TV series “Fargo” — says it’s a play about healing and about empathy.
“If you’re not able to find empathy for people who live in the same household as you, who share DNA with you who look like you, how are you going to be able to find empathy and compassion for people who come from completely different walks of life than you do?” said Colston.
Every night, when he takes the stage to portray the character he created, Colston realizes he has a huge responsibility to be what he calls an emotional astronaut, navigating the unknown corners of humanity and reporting back his discoveries.
“My philosophy as an artist is, I cannot ask an audience to do what I’m not willing to do first,” he said. “And sometimes, that requires really rigorous introspection.”
“The First Deep Breath” runs at the Geffen Playhouse through March 5.