It's easy to forget that not long ago living your life openly in America was an impossible dream, especially if you wanted to remain employed or, in some places, alive. That idea may have been on Naomi Wallace's mind when she penned her taut, harrowing drama And I and Silence, playing at the Pershing Square Signature Center under Caitlin McLeod's direction. With a strong cast and sensitively written script, this play examines a brutal period in American history that's not as distant as we'd like to think.
Wallace volleys the story's action between two years. The play opens in 1959 in a small room furnished with a single bed and little more than a sink and a couple of wash basins. Dee (Samantha Soule), who is white, and Jamie (Rachel Nicks), who is black, have set up house in an unnamed American city. Work is hard to come by after spending several years in prison, where Dee and Jamie met and became friends. But both of them have dreams as big as the sky, even if those dreams include just getting jobs as house servants, earning some money, and meeting a couple of nice fellas, preferably brothers, so maybe they can all live together in one happy home. "Always loved it when you said maybe," says Jamie. "Cause that always meant yes."
The scene then shifts to the 1950 prison cell where Dee and Jamie meet as teenagers. Young Dee (Emily Skeggs), full of spit and vinegar, has a tendency toward violence (it's the reason she ended up in prison). Young Jamie (Trae Harris) has learned to fight her battles with her wits (she's in for accessory to robbery). Together she and Dee role-play master and servant, one pretending to be a domineering, condescending employer while the other acts as the fawning underling. It's a dark lesson meant to prepare them for the outside world. But their dreams for quiet lives vaporize the longer they live together in society, ultimately forcing them to take drastic action.
Rachel Hauck's set cleverly captures the similarity between Dee and Jamie's room and the cells they occupied — the two friends are, in fact, prisoners in the outside world too, unable even to walk in public together without having curses and soda bottles hurled at them. Director McLeod reinforces the similarity of the room and the cell by having the actors adjust the angle of the bed when the scene changes. Other than that, there's little difference between prison and "freedom."
Harris works the play's comic moments well, giving charming humor to Jamie's instruction to hold a dust rag in the shape of a flittering bird and to curtsey while dusting, and Skeggs is a delight as the young spitfire Dee. As the older Jamie and Dee, Nicks and Soule have great chemistry onstage, and they create profound pathos in the play's startling final moments.
Jamie's desperate decision to take matters into her own hands feels less convincing than Dee's. Still, Wallace's play bristles with powerful, poetic language that this cast does justice to. McLeod makes good use of the Signature's Linney Theatre by allowing Dee's and Jamie's younger versions to remain in view on the stairs and walkways that rise above the stage while their older selves interact below. This mingling of the past and present foreshadows the disturbing, superbly executed final scene, made literally brilliant by Bradley King's dramatic lighting design. And I and Silence is an intense, provocative drama that will remind you that America has a ways to go before it is truly the land of the free.