Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks in And I and Silence
Naomi Wallace charts a friendship forged in the face of adversity in And I and Silence, which opened last night at the Pershing Signature Center. Bringing to mind an American riff on Jean Genet’s The Maids, the play, which touches on intriguing issues of race and gender equality, has moments of both gentle comedy and drama, and is performed with sensitivity by a talented four person ensemble. Unfortunately, while there is much to admire and contemplate in this 90-minute piece, it’s a show that almost consistently engages the mind, but never fully captures the heart.
Wallace affords theatergoers with the chance to witness the relationship between Dee and Jamie from two perspectives. Initially, they are seen as two 20-something women, just released from prison and hoping to make a new life for themselves as domestics in an unnamed (presumably Southern based on their accents) city in 1959. The play then flashes back to the moment when the two women met for the first time, as teenagers, while they were incarcerated. And I and Silence continues to alternate between the two periods, and what emerges is one tale of hope and another of sad desperation.
It’s the prison side of the tale that is the hopeful portion of Silence. Dee and Janie have had little chance in their formative years, but while they are together in prison, they envision a future for themselves in which they can make their way in the world by serving as maids. In these portions of the play, Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs, as Jamie and Dee respectively, charm. Both actresses capture the characters’ girlishness beautifully, and they modulate their performances with a preternatural hardness that’s both sad and frightening.
Once they have been released and established a home (after a fashion) in a dingy apartment (scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides the abstracted environment that serves as both home and prison), the young women follow through on the plans that they made, but while they have some success at securing work, it’s never lasting. And as their existence becomes increasingly bleak, Dee looks back on their time behind bars, saying: “We weren't hungry. Could use our minds for other things. Now, we got nothing.”
In these portions of the play, Samantha Soule (Dee) and Rachel Nicks (Jamie) deliver performances that start with a delicate shimmer of hopefulness, and as the play progresses, their work takes on a disturbing darkness and bitterness, qualities that are intriguingly echoed in the Elisheba Ittoop’s atmospheric soundscape.
Both pairs of actresses ably traverse the poetic sections of Wallace’s script with finesse (Jamie and Dee have a habit of lapsing into playful rhyming that brings to mind what young girls might chant while jumping rope). Further, the performers gracefully segue into and out of the power games that Wallace builds into the training that African-American Jamie, whose mother was a maid, gives Caucasian Dee for her future life as a domestic.
Director Caitlin McLeod’s seamless and fluid staging also has a subtle tension to it, particularly when the actresses playing the younger incarnations of the characters are glimpsed in the shadows while the adult characters are center stage. McLeod’s fine work, however, does not compensate for some of the lapses in Wallace’s script. For instance, while Jamie and Dee reference the segregation of the prison, it’s never quite clear how the two manage to spend as much time together as they do.
And I and Silence ends with both the younger and older incarnations of the characters sharing the stage together for the first time with guarded optimism blending with utter despair. Theoretically, it's meant to inspire shock and a deep sense of tragedy, but ultimately, all that one can feel is admiration for the deliberate and intelligent craftsmanship of the moment and the entirety of production.
---- Andy Propst
And I and Silence plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: signaturetheatre.org.