(“And I And Silence” plays at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason through November 23rd, 2014.)
Naomi Wallace has written a play that is demanding, disturbing, deceptive, delightful, depressing, and never dull. It is however, like its eccentric title (from a poem by Emily Dickinson), quite puzzling. Naomi Wallace herself was first known as a poet of some distinction before venturing into playwrighting, and the poetry tells.
The play opens in “the present”, which is the late 1950s. Dee and Jamie are in a small cell-like apartment, fighting with one another, aggressive, engaged, brimming with history. They argue, they laugh, they play rhyming games. Their language is startling, not quite realistic, emotionally true but confusing at the same time. There is little exposition. The scene is all intensity and confrontation, subtext and excitement, with hints of sexual tension and deep secrets.
The next scene sends us to the past, set in a prison cell, virtually identical in appearance to the cell-like apartment of scene one. We see Dee and Jamie meet as imprisoned teenagers. Dee has spotted Jamie in the yard, and decided that they will be friends for life. Why? It’s not entirely clear. They dance around one another, are playful, intrigued, form a rapport, begin to dream of a future. We sense some racial tension (Dee is white —Jamie is Black — it matters — but we’re not sure how and why). There is still very little exposition.
It was at this point a friend of mine reports that he left the theatre, confused and disheartened. He is a sophisticated playgoer, but he found the opening scenes to be that confusing, that unusual, that new. (He might say “that boring”, but he’d be wrong.) He should have stayed. His effort to embrace this very different work of art would have been rewarded, in my opinion.
The structure of the play begins to make sense as it continues to unfold: each scene bounces between prison cell and apartment. We gradually learn that the women spent nine more years in prison after they met, and built a friendship based on dreams of living a life together after release. Jamie’s mother was a maid who taught Jamie the trade. Jamie agrees to teach Dee and this is how they plan to live. Their relationship becomes strong enough that when they are separated by prison authorities in their final year of servitude, they nevertheless come together after release.
Back and forth on the loom of their lives, the play weaves its tapestry of themes. There is race and servitude, sexuality, oppression, lesbian love and the denial of lesbian love, anger, resentment, hope and despair. We begin to sense the prison these women carry within them, the limitations societal and personal they have endured that brought them to jail and keep them in a kind of psychological and social prison that they fight fiercely to transcend with love and humor. It’s hard. Sometimes the love is violent and the humor dark. Life is a struggle.
The play is not so much a story as an exploration of character and condition. The conversations are not so much plot driven as complex emotional games and theatrical tricks the ladies play upon one another, teasing the past out of each other, trying to squirm an escape through a seemingly unescapable maze of cells within cells within cells, real and abstract, inner and outer. They are strong. They are loving. They are full of fear and passion and hope. It is never clear how it will end until it does. Happily? Unhappily? Inevitably? It’s hard to say.
This is a demanding play that is difficult to describe, difficult to watch, and difficult to understand. But if you open yourself to its poetry, it is likely to move you deeply. (All of which reminds me of Emily Dickinson, which is no accident.)
The four actresses playing Dee (Jessi Campbell), Young Dee (Siobhan Marie Doherty), Jamie (Tristan Cunningham) and Young Jamie (Angel Moore) are definitely put through their paces. The piece makes athletic demands on every level: physically, emotionally, linguistically. Each actress rises to the occasion with skill.
This is brilliant writing from a very exceptional and original voice that deserves to be heard. Certainly Producing Artistic Director Loretta Greco, who directed this production herself, must believe in it strongly.
This is the sort of courageous new work that has made the Magic’s reputation what it is today. It’s good to see a fine tradition so well honored.
For further information, click here.
“And I And Silence” a world premiere by Naomi Wallace, presented by Magic Theatre. Director: Loretta Greco. Set Design: Daniel Ostling. Costume Design: Brandin Barón. Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge. Sound Design: Sara Huddleston.
Dee: Jessi Campbell. Jamie: Tristan Cunningham. Young Dee: Siobhan Marie Doherty. Young Jamie: Angel Moore.
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