Let’s Throw This Play about 1950s Prisons into Solitary

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, And I and Silence

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

American entertainment history has been filled with superb prison stories with television series such as Orange Is the New Black and Oz, films such as The Birdman of Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption and plays like Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

Naomi Wallace’s new prison drama, And I and Silence, is not one of them.

This is no Orange is the New Black. This is Orange Is the New Black and Blue. Somebody should shuffle the playwright off to Cell Block C.

In And I and Silence, that just opened at New York’s Signature Theater, a teenaged black girl, Jamie, is sent to prison in 1950 for armed robbery. There, she meets a young white girl, Dee, who is behind bars for stabbing her mother’s abusive boyfriend. They were both serving nine year sentences. The play seems like nine years long.

The first half of the one act, 90 minute play is hard to figure out. The playwright has scenes between the girls at age 19 and then at age 28 (using four different actresses, and who knows why). She cuts back and forth between the two sets of women so often that people in the audience feel like they are watching a tennis match. Your neck gets sore. Nothing happens, though. The second half is a little better, but not much.

The second half finds the two women out of the penitentiary, unemployed and roommates living in a boarding house with nowhere to turn and no place to go. There might be a dozen different final endings to it, but the playwright chose one that is ridiculous.

If the playwright had at least given the audience a truer look at women’s prisons in that era the play might have improved considerably. That story, the tale of the still dark ages prison system, with all of its unfairness and barbarity, might have been more engaging.

The great sin of the play is that it ignores one of the most tragic eras in American prison history. The period 1950 to 1959, when these fictional women were incarcerated, were among the worst years in U.S. penal history. In the years 1951 and 1952 alone, the U.S. was hit with thirty separate prison riots, some in which hostages were taken. Many had to be put down with tears gas and small armies of armed guards. The reasons, said Edgardo Rotman in an essay in The Oxford History of the Prison, edited by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, were brutal guards, terrible food, severe overcrowding, poor administration, administrators appointed for political purposes, substandard medical care, boredom, prisoner leaders who secretly worked for administrators, run down heating and cooling systems and failed rehabilitation programs. None of this is mentioned in the play. One really shocking hole in the play is the lack of discussion about prison racial imbalance, in both the 1950s and today. Here, on stage, you have one black woman and one white woman who rarely talk about race while in jail. In prisons today, more than fifty per cent of the prison population is black, even though just twelve per cent of the U.S. populations is black. The United States has far more prisoners behind bars than any other country and the sentences for American inmates are much higher than for men and women who committed similar crimes in other countries. It cost the American taxpayer a fortune to keep all these men and women behind bars (in the eighteenth century offenders were just jailed for a few weeks). The per cent of people who return to jail after they are released is shocking. The play ignores all of this.

Director Caitlin McLeod struggles to keep the play together, even though she gets fine performances from Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs as the younger Jamie and Dee and Rachel Nick and Samantha Soule as the couple nine years later.

Wallace’s play is looking for a long run. They should give it five to ten.

PRODUCTION; The play is produced by the Signature Theater. Sets: Rachel Hauck, Costumes: Clint Ramos, Lighting: Bradley King. The play is directed by Caitlin McLeod. The play runs through September 14.

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