In “And I And Silence,” a challenging play by Naomi Wallace, two women, Dee and Jamie, one white, the other black, meet in prison when they are teenagers, and after they are released years later, struggle to survive together in a Southern town in 1959 – a struggle that ends in tragedy.
That is a more or less accurate summary of the plot in this first of Naomi Wallace’s plays to be presented this season at the Signature. But it doesn’t really get at the play, which isn’t so straightforward. Wallace has two actresses portray each character. Scenes of the Young Dee (Emily Skeggs) and Young Jamie (Trae Harris) in prison alternate with scenes of the older Dee (Samantha Soule) and Jamie (Rachel Nicks) in the room that the two wind up sharing. Both scenes take place on the same spare set, on a kind of narrow catwalk that runs down the center of the Linney Theater, splitting the audience in two.
The abstract quality of the set reflects the language of the play. A respected theater artist who won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, Wallace began as a poet, and her love of poetry strongly influences her approach to storytelling on the stage. The title of this play comes from a line from Emily Dickinson’s poem I felt a Funeral, in my Brain; some of the dialogue is in rhyming couplets. The playwright’s feel for language can be rewarding:
“Soup for weeks now,” Dee complains to Jamie. “I hate soup.”
“Well, I don’t think it likes you either, Dee, ’cause you always disrespect it. But after the rent it’s all we can afford.”
But Wallace’s lyrical approach (the less tolerant would call it arty or vague) sometimes seems to work against the play’s apparent purpose. Originally commissioned by the London company Clean Break to perform in women’s prisons, “And I And Silence” seems meant to depict a “turbulent era” in American history, and expose what Wallace calls “one of the most oppressive economic systems in the world.” The quotations are from an interview with Wallace in a Signature publication; in that same publication, director Caitlin McLeod is more explicit:
“The play re-examines and challenges the 1950s, a period often looked back on with nostalgia for its slick, ‘Mad Men,’ consumer-boom brightness. Yet Naomi writes about those who were present but invisible…in a society that was still very oppressive, segregated, and rife with inequality.”
Jamie and Dee are two women who never had a chance. Jamie was in jail because she helped her brother commit a robbery, with a piece of wood made to look like a gun; the storeowner used a real gun to kill her brother, the last of her living relatives. Dee stabbed her father after he pushed her mother (yet again) down a staircase.
We see the young women in prison playfully but seriously practicing to be maids, the only job they believe they have a chance of getting after their release. Once on the outside, we glean from their conversation that even maids jobs are difficult both to get and to keep; that they are subjected to physical and sexual abuse at these jobs; and, because of their interracial friendship, they can’t walk together in public without getting things thrown at them. They role-play bad experiences they have had on the outside, and talk about their dreams, which are mostly nightmares.
The entire production takes on a dream-like quality, the dialogue rarely sounding like the way two people would actually speak to one another, the scenes not always clearly offering a linear progression. The actors, unmistakably pros, subtly project a range of feelings, from unspoken love to suppressed frustration. But they are seldom convincing as flesh-and-blood human beings.
European critics have been big on this play, one comparing it to Genet’s The Maids except “a truly American tragedy…. completely grounded in the harshness of the real world.” But perhaps they know as much about what’s truly American as British director Caitlin McLeod knows about “Mad Men,” a TV series that is set in the 1960’s, not the 1950’s – an admittedly petty and unfair snipe. But to me her misstatement is a clue to the lack of interest in the concrete, accurate details that make up a credible reality on stage.
For those theatergoers in the right mind-set – the patience to treat this piece the way they would a poem, uncertain of its meaning at times, content with its rhythms – “And I And Silence” is dark but beautiful. The rest of us might find it intriguing for about 15 minutes, and shocking for the final five, but spend the bulk of its 90 minutes working hard to pretend it’s not a bore.
And I and Silence
Pershing Square Signature Theater
By Naomi Wallace; directed by Caitlin McLeod; sets by Rachel Hauck; costumes by Clint Ramos; lighting by Bradley King; music and sound by Elisheba Ittoop; dialect coach, Charlotte Fleck; fight director, Unkledave’s Fight-House;
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Cast: Trae Harris (Young Jamie), Rachel Nicks (Jamie), Emily Skeggs (Young Dee) and Samantha Soule (Dee).
And I and Silence is scheduled to run through September 14th.