You might think for a moment you’ve happened upon an En Vogue concert: To the loud, throbbing sounds of hip-hop, three young African-American women in black catsuits and Doc Martins jump onto a platform lit from above by bright colored lights. But the illusion is soon dispelled: Though it’s directed with stark stylishness by Lisa Peterson, the new play “Mules” has substance to spare. It’s a vividly drawn picture of women exploiting themselves — and each other — in the international drug trade.
A trio of exemplary actresses (Gail Grate, Saundra Quarterman and Bahni Turpin) play a variety of female characters, but it’s made clear from the start that at the top of this dangerous food chain is an unseen man. In the opening scene in London, the elegantly attired Bridie (Quarterman) and two associates scheme to hide from kingpin Cliveden the theft of a shipment of drugs, which disappeared along with one of the young drug couriers — the “mules” of the title — who snuck it through customs.
In short scenes punctuated by bursts of rhythmic music and the energetic reshuffling of the three chairs that constitute the scenery, we follow the fortunes of Bridie and a trio of women she seeks out to join her cadre of mules, ever in need of new recruits for reasons that will soon become grimly clear.
The play’s most compellingly drawn characters are sisters Lyla (Grate) and Lou (Turpin), first seen scrounging a living selling underwear in Kingston, Jamaica’s Trenchtown ghetto.
Playwright Winsome Pinnock — the name’s like something from an E.F. Benson novel, though her comic gifts are of a more politically engaged nature — makes her points in these scenes with winking subtlety. Though they can hardly scrounge up a meal, Lyla and Lou know all too much about Naomi Campbell, whose purported previous occupancy of the lingerie they flog is seen as a selling point; the homogenization of world culture has disseminated to even the bleakest corners of the earth dreams of material achievement that only make the dire poverty of the dreamers more painful.
It’s the aching desire to escape a life circumscribed by the violence and want of Trenchtown that makes Lyla and Lou easy prey for Bridie. Despite their qualms, they’re soon secreting packets of cocaine on — and in — their persons, enticed by promises of London shopping sprees.
In the play’s other strand, London runaway Allie (Grate) is reduced to begging when she meets Bridie, and is soon high on the thrill of her first trip: The sense of achievement she feels comes from flaunting the laws of a world that has marginalized her.
Peterson builds up a fair amount of dramatic momentum through her energetic direction, but the play suffers somewhat from its disjointed structure.
While the stories of Lyla and Lou are steeped in the flavor of their lives — and the marvelous Turpin and Grate create a deeply felt sense of the love and loyalty between the sisters — Allie’s story is less convincing, despite strong playing from Grate. Her allusion to a stepfather’s abuse is perfunctory (it’s becoming a catch-all literary device), and the manner in which she falls to begging is contrived.
And fundamentally, both stories are making the same point: the Jamaican girls and Allie both turn to the work only out of desperate poverty. Lack of closure to Allie’s story, and a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to Bridie’s, are more minor problems.
Everything to do with Lyla and Lou is subtly conveyed and moving, but Pinnock makes some points in a more obvious manner, with Bridie addressing to the audience a monologue about the psychological ramifications of begging that is only occasionally original, as when she says the giver of coins believes he’s buying “an unseen lucky charm” that will keep him from falling prey to the same fate.
But Pinnock wisely returns to the story of Lyla and Lou at the close. After four years in a London prison for drug smuggling, Lou is back in Jamaica; Lyla has two children, and is working in a marijuana field.
In a moment of both breathtaking sadness and bleak irony, Lou speaks wistfully of the brief moments of excitement that their trip to London brought. Though she has paid for them dearly, the harshness of the life that hems her in means those memories will forever provide a bittersweet taste of the good life beyond her reach.