Saturday, August 30, 2014

And I and Silence

What happens when people have no options? Specifically, what happens when a pair of women, best friends who met in prison, try to make good lives for themselves in a world that has little use for them? In Naomi Wallace's poetic, uneven, heartbreaking, awkwardly named And I and Silence, what happens is not pretty.

Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs
Photo: Matthew Murphy
Jamie is black and smart and unyielding; she was an accessory to a robbery. Dee is white and uneducated and explosive; she stabbed someone in self-defense. When they meet, they are 17 and 16. Dee wants so much to be friends with Jamie, after seeing her stand up to a guard, that she sneaks from the white section to the black and shrugs off Jamie's rejections until Jamie succumbs to her admiration and offers of friendship and candy.

They spend much of their time together practicing to be maids. Jamie has the knowledge, and she tutors Dee in dusting, shining silver, and even how to bend down. They test each other's ability to put up with mean bosses and ill treatment. They discuss how to deal with sexual harassment (leave, and always remember to take your bucket and brush).

Nine years later, Jamie and Dee are finally out of jail, living in a room not much different than a jail cell, and trying desperately to use their much-practiced skills to make their livings as maids. But, ultimately, they cannot take the abuse and harassment; they lose jobs, generally for trying to maintain their self-respect. There is little joy in their lives; even taking a walk is a hazard as strangers express their dislike for the women's interracial friendship by name-calling and worse. For a long time, Jamie and Dee retain their dream of marrying brothers and having a farm, but in reality they are slowly dying the death of a thousand indignities.

Jamie is played by Trae Harris at 17 and by Rachel Nicks as an adult. Dee is Emily Skeggs at 16 and Samantha Soule as an adult. All four actors give sensitive, layered, smart, outstanding performances. Under Caitlin McLeod's direction, the characterizations complement each other to the extent that the lack of physical similarity between the paired actors is not an issue; they are clearly the same people.

Naomi Wallace's writing combines the lyrical and the base in ways that don't always cohere. A little less of each might have made the play more successful as a whole. But the story is strong and the characters are full-blooded and painfully real, and, amazingly enough, parts are extremely funny. Wallace's compassion and honesty and the beauty of her writing trump the play's flaws by far.

($25 plus an insane amount in fees; second row all the way to the side)

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