Naomi Wallace has written a dramatic powerhouse in And I And Silence. This two character (four actress) triumph sneaks up on you; or, it did on me. I was charmed early on and laughed out loud more than once. Finally, tears.
We meet Dee and Jamie as young girls in prison doing 8 years. Dee, the white girl, is always in trouble, regularly ‘in-the-hole’ for her transgressions. Jamie, the black girl, is wary of the impassioned friendship Dee foists upon her, but ultimately she is seduced. Wallace builds the bond with small speeches and girlish play. She calls up Emily Dickinson’s (the title is drawn from Dickinson’s I Felt a Funeral In My Brain) economic tradition, letting the girls (and later the women) almost dance their quick exchanges, finishing each other’s thoughts. It’s not verse, but in those moments, nearly.
Jamie teaches Dee how to dust and to polish silver; how to be a servant with style. That’s their plan. When they get out they will take jobs as maids and live happily together on the outside.
The young Dee and Jamie are dreamers even in the grim cells that contain them. The more mature Dee and Jamie are the strivers, convinced they can overcome the racism of 1950s America and make a life.
Director Caitlin McLeod maintains a nifty balance; For most of the performance the two pairs move off and on the stage with careless grace, shifting the action from then to now. Ultimately, when all four occupy adjacent space, the emotional content of their parallel dialogues draws a stark contrast; it forces the audience to confront its collusion in their naïveté. If you lived in the 1950s you know better. They could not have lived the life they hoped for.
McLeod allows no distractions. The actors completely inhabit the characters. These are gifted performers in the hands of a disciplined director. There is no artifice, nothing extra. McLeod and Wallace are ideally suited in that both the writing and the direction are remarkably spare.
There are things to quibble about. But, so much to admire.
The title is hard to remember, even to pronounce. But the Dickinson reference lends a sort of dark cache.
The costumes are not at all period-perfect but they are wonderfully evocative of need. They keep the women warm and modest in their poverty.
The lighting works wonders on the bare bones stage, heightening the bleak institutional scenes and daubing some warmth into the room the two inhabit later. In the climactic scene, there is surprising light from below.
Fight direction is such an odd credit in a testosterone-free piece. That said, the fight scene? Perfect.
One way to think about And I and Silence might be – It’s Thelma and Louise, twenty-three years later, without the 66’ Thunderbird or the gun, or any men. It’s women struggling to do the best they can against daunting odds.
And I and Silence – by Naomi Wallace; directed by Caitlin McLeod.
WITH: Rachel Nicks (Jamie), Samantha Soule (Dee), Trae Harris (Young Jamie), and Emily Skeggs (Young Dee).
At The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, it runs through September 14th. The run time is 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission.