Naomi Wallace’s And I And Silence is a graceful play, part prison drama, part exploration of the struggle which former prisoners face to reintegrate into society. It is most interested in the question of control. Life as both a prisoner and an ex-inmate is highly regulated, but Wallace’s characters are staunch in their belief that they can seize control of their own lives and guide themselves towards happiness.
Society might have different ideas, however, and the tense struggle between self and society fuels the play. We meet Wallace’s two characters outside of prison at a moment of tension. Jamie (Rachel Nicks), a black woman, and Dee (Samantha Lee), a white woman, stand on opposite sides of a small room and speak in clipped sentences: “Don’t” “I’m gonna do it” “No you’re not” “Can’t stop myself.” It is clear that they both understand exactly what is happening, but the play has little interest in letting the audience in on the context of the scene. Knowledge and understanding will come in time, but only gradually and never fully. Wallace stresses throughout And I And Silence the unique bond between these two women and the fruitlessness of anybody else trying to understand their relationship entirely.
In the opening lines we are made to wonder if these two are bitter enemies, loving friends, or share some other relationship, and we are entirely in the dark about what it is Jamie is imploring Dee not to do. And then Dee pounces on Jamie and a struggle ensues as the two wrestle for control before Dee tickles Jamie without mercy and we quickly realize that we were witnessing a pretended tension between two great friends. The play makes us wait only a few moments for this clarification, but the episode is indicative of how Wallace crafts the relationship between the audience and Dee and Jamie’s world: they are on one plane of existence, populated by shared memories, inside jokes, and mutual understanding, and everybody else is on another; Wallace never entirely allows us in to their friendship.
Gradually we learn that Jamie and Dee spent time together in prison and have only recently been released. They have grand plans. They discuss getting jobs cleaning houses, making some money, and eventually getting out of the harsh city into a cabin in the woods. As their discussion of the future roles out, they finish each other’s sentences and correct each other’s slip ups: it becomes clear that these are plans hatched long ago which the two are eager to finally put into practice.
The scenes that follow introduce the play’s central conceit. We see two young girls—one black and one white— in prison jump suits. These are young Dee (Emily Skeggs) and young Jamie (Trae Harris), and this first meeting is happening nine years earlier. Friendship and intimacy is replaced by tension and anger: Dee has snuck into Jamie’s cell, determined to make a new friend, but Jamie puts on a tough exterior in an effort to repel her guest.
In a taught ninety minutes, on an intimate and impressively efficient set, designed by Rachel Hauck, the play alternates between the past and the present. In prison, we watch the young girls progress from bitterness and distance toward the deeply embedded friendship we saw in the opening scene.
The two women are principled in the plans they have for their futures, but the cold city has little regard for these principles, and as their well-structured plans begin to waiver the play interrogates how much control these institutionalized women ever really had over their lives.
The performances are excellent and the direction by Caitlin McLeod insightful. There’s a choreographic quality to it, as the actors on stage (two at a time until the final scene, but even then it seems like two sets of two rather than four people sharing a space) move with purpose and grace around their intimate playing space. Wallace has packed a great deal of character development into her short play, examining the social pressure on issues like gender, race, and sexuality along the way, and McLeod succeeds in finding space for us to experience all of this within the tumult of Jamie and Dee’s shared journey.