Described in brief, Naomi Wallace’s ingeniously structured new play sounds so heavy with issues that it should never get off the ground. Set between a prison and a hovel in 1950s America, it concerns the futile efforts of two young women, one black and one white, to rise above poverty, gender, racial inequality and class. But thanks to Wallace’s delicate touch and generous imagination, it unfolds into a story of love whose unexpected emotional power sideswipes the audience. Once again, the question arises: Why isn’t this superb writer more widely produced?
Wallace’s inspired idea here is to run two parallel tracks of action and have the same characters played at two points in their lives by two pairs of actors. We follow teenaged Dee, who is white (Lauren Crace), and Jamie, who is black (Cat Simmons) as they meet and become friends in prison; and, in interspersed scenes, observe them as young women, played by Sally Oliver and Cherrelle Skeete, after they are released and are trying to find their footing.
We slowly find out why the woman are behind bars — Dee stabbed her wife-beating father, and Jamie was wrongly picked up as an accessory to gun crime — but the dynamic here is neither procedural nor polemic. What is heartbreaking is the extremely limited sphere of opportunity these women see available to them: One of the bases of their friendship is Jamie teaching Dee how to clean houses in the properly polite and subservient manner.
But the most elegant way Wallace brings her point home is the unexpected redirection of the emotional story arcs. Hope flies upward in prison, as the girls imagine building their future lives, but because they’re poor, ex-cons and women — and because one of them is black — society on the outside slowly beats them down. All they end up having left — sexually, emotionally, materially — is each other, and it’s a tribute to Wallace’s skill that in less than 90 minutes of storytelling the desperate final choice they make feels deeply unjust but at the same time inevitable.
Director Caitlin McLeod and set designer Cecilia Carey maximize the tiny playing space. The simple movement of one set piece by the actors shifts us from one location to the other, and keeping all actors constantly in view underlines the continuities in the story. In some cases character traits are overplayed, but overall the four actors rise to the considerable challenge of navigating the contrasts and emotional hardships of this material (and the accents).
A former MacArthur genius fellow and Obie winner, Wallace is one of the most subtle and politically engaged American playwrights of her generation. It’s a tribute to the small theatre companies and independent producers behind this prod (including Clean Break, which works with women offenders) to have mounted it at such a high standard. American legiters, take note.