In a month when American race relations appear to have reached a historic low, the subject matter of Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence — an interracial love story with a tragic end — feels especially apt. The play itself…well, that’s more of a mixed affair.
In its U.S. premiere at the Signature Theatre, directed by Caitlin McLeod (who also staged its London debut), And I and Silence follows two hard-luck women through the 1950s. Jamie (Rachel Nicks) is African-American; Dee (Samantha Soule) is white. Years ago, the pair formed an unlikely friendship in an unlikely place, as teenage girls in prison. Now free, they try to construct new lives side by side. It’s a (mostly) endearing take on friendship and love, with a violent conclusion offering a pointed — but in many ways disappointingly trite — reminder of our country’s dismal record on race, class, and incarceration.
Wallace begins in the present: in this case 1959. Dee and Jamie hold a high-spirited reunion in the bare-bones rented room where they’ve landed post-prison. They giggle over the classifieds, apply for jobs as housemaids, and catch up on the years they’ve missed one another (the two were separated partway through their sentences, when Dee got too bold with the prison guards and was transferred to a high-security facility upstate).
Flashback scenes, inhabited by younger versions of the women (Emily Skeggs as young Dee, Trae Harris as young Jamie) weave in and out of the present day. Tellingly, these glimpses of the past play out in the same stark room, with the same shabby furniture, which represents their home after release. Rachel Hauck’s set is a portrait of desperation: sepia-toned like a memory but unromantically dingy, populated by a bedraggled cot, a stained basin, and a minuscule hot plate for the women’s dwindling food supply. The static set — equally believable as a cell or a down-market rental — reminds us that for Jamie and Dee, as for so many, the world outside prison isn’t necessarily friendlier than the world within.
In memory mode, we watch the girls fall in love a little at a time, between the harsh strictures of prison routine. Dee is sassy, excitable, and overconfident. Jamie is guarded and intelligent, and Harris plays her with a sharp, appealing charisma. Cautiously, then joyously, the girls become friends, promising to care for one another when their nine-year sentences conclude. They plan to land lucrative jobs as housemaids — and then, in the hazy future, to buy a farm somewhere verdant and free.
As the tale unfolds, though, Wallace’s storytelling starts to feel tired. How many American dramas feature down-and-out urbanites with farmland fantasies? Don’t we start sniffing doom the moment a character begins describing her imaginary garden plot? And I and Silence teeters between poetic inevitability and sheer predictability, and the carefully alternating present and past scenes begin to plod. Wallace’s ending, an abrupt shift from quiet despair to blood and guts, strikes an especially false note. The pull of high-stakes drama — or maybe the urge to hammer home a point — outweighs the delicate communion between Jamie and Dee.
And that relationship, in the end, is what’s unique. These women are smart and sympathetic, and their friendship-slash-romance is a pleasure to watch. Especially poignant are the moments, toward the end, when their older and younger selves share the stage — lingering on the edges of scenes, watching their teenage incarnations flirt and their here-and-now selves confront growing despair. This convergence of past and present says more about the prison house of race and class than any violent denouement ever could: Even after they get out of jail, these women aren’t free.