September 4, 2014

"And I And Silence" Gives Lyrical Voice to the Woes of Society's Most Downtrodden Women

It seems fitting that playwright Naomi Wallace should draw the title of her play And I And Silence from a line in an Emily Dickinson poem (click here to read it). For this awkwardly-named drama is as simultaneously delicate and fierce as a sonnet.

Running in Signature Theatre’s intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater through Sept. 14, the play, which is set in the 1950s, tells the story of two girls who meet in prison when they are just teenagers and the different ways in which society continues to cage them in even after they’re released nine years later.  
Dee, who is white, is serving time for stabbing one of her mother’s hands-too-loose boyfriends. Jamie, who is black, is in because she accompanied her brother on a robbery that went bad. 
The prison where they’ve been sentenced is segregated but the girls manage to form a bond and to share modest dreams of finding work as maids, marrying brothers and living together happily ever after. It should come as no spoiler for me to say that this doesn’t happen.  
Wallace has constructed her 90-minute tone poem so that each woman is played by two different actors. Neither Samantha Soule and Emily Skeggs, who play the older and younger Dee; nor Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks, who portray the corresponding Jamies, actually resemble one another but it doesn’t really matter because all four are so good. 
And under Caitlin McLeod’s pitch-perfect direction, they are able to convey emotional through lines for Dee and Jamie even as the story skips back and forth in time (click here to read about how they did it). 
Special shout outs have to go to the set, costume, lighting and sound designers, who make the single set, little more than a solitary bed, thrum with meaning, from the menacing clank of cell doors to the thread-bare clothes that the paroled women carefully wash each night in a declaration of their dignity.
Some critics have put down the play’s overt politics (it pointedly condemns the options that exist for poor women).  While others have decried its flights of poetic fancy (some of the lines intentionally rhyme).  
But Jamie and Dee’s fate reminded me of those of some other desperate dreamers, like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men, Solange and Claire in The Maids and, ultimately, the movie’s Thelma and Louise. They all know, and force us to see, that love can’t be the answer to all woes.

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