Naomi Wallace is one of our most poetic playwrights. She is fascinated by the intersections of race and gender politics and their relationship to America's class system. AND I AND SILENCE dramatizes the friendship, love, of two women in the South in the 1950s. Jamie (African-American) and Dee (white), meet and become good friends in prison. There they enact mistress-servant fantasies (Wallace must have been thinking of Jean Genet's THE MAIDS) as they plan to be domestic servants when they are released. NIne years later, now friends roommates and lovers, Jamie and Dee are starving in an anonymous city. They have lost their jobs as servants and have resorted to prostitution. There seems to be no way out of hunger and desperation.
Wallace has two sets of actresses play Jamie and Dee at the two moments in their lives -- their friendship in prison and their doomed love in the city nine years later. They can't go out together as equals -- they will be perceived as mistress and servant, the roles they play out in their private fantasies.
There's beauty and deep sadness in Wallace's play. It's a love story, but her characters are worn down by the realities of life for poor women, women of color, and lesbians. This is a tragedy of sorts, and fate is a set of social and economic circumstances. Wallace's language is both poetic and appropriate to these characters. They speak eloquently, but with diction that befits their circumstances. I kept thinking of opera as I watched AND I AND SILENCE. The play is a series of duets leading to a quartet. The language is musical, the ending heart-wrenching.
Director Caitlin McLeod has placed the audience on two sides of an open stage as if we in the audience were surrounding the characters. She has made the most extremely effective use of the Linney black box that I have seen. Characters enter the playing are from a long flight of stairs that descends from the upper level of the space, as if they were descending into a nether world, a hell of sorts. When one set of actors leaves the playing area, they remain visible somewhere in the theatre, so that young Jamie and Dee and their older counterparts are never totally separate.
Both sets of characters are fine, though Rachel Nicks (older Jamie) gives a particularly powerful performance.
I know I sound like a broken record, but the Signature Theatre is the most important theatre in town for celebrating our most important playwrights. It is also the most enjoyable theatre space in town, the closest thing in New York to Britain's National Theatre.
AND I AND SILENCE. Signature Theatre Linney Theatre. August 13, 2014.