by Raven Snook
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles
Crafting a character is always a collaborative process, with the performer, playwright, director, and designers all informing how a person moves from the page to the stage. But in Naomi Wallace’s intimate drama And I and Silence there’s an additional variable: a second actor.
Named for a line in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,” the ’50s-set play, now at Signature Theatre, traces the risky relationship between two imprisoned female teens and their valiant attempt to forge a life together after they’re released. Two sets of performers portray the African-American Jamie (Trae Harris and Rachel Nicks) and Caucasian Dee (Emily Skeggs and Samantha Soule) in 1950 and 1959 respectively, and though they’re far from dead ringers, their performances are similar enough to suggest you’re watching the same characters at different ages.
While it’s rare to have two actors tackle the same part in one show, Soule has actually done it before. “Karen Allen and I did a play called A Summer Day about two years ago at the Cherry Lane,” she remembers. “I played her younger self. It was about a woman who was stuck in the remembrance of one particular day and was more of a classic memory play. Naomi specifically didn’t want And I and Silence to be a memory play. Both realities are living simultaneously.” Though they start out as distinct, the two eras begin to bleed together à la Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, with all four actors inhabiting the stage simultaneously. So the pairs needed to be in sync in order to maintain the illusion of being one woman.
To that end, “Emily and I worked a bunch together in terms of crafting this person,” Soule says. “I think Caitlin [McLeod, the director] picked us because we inherently echoed each other. In rehearsal, we did a fair amount of mirroring exercises and improv. Caitlin would let us play for 20 minutes at a time and at the end she’d say, ‘This is what I saw you both instinctively choose to do.’ She had us hone in on places where we interpreted the character in the same way.”
But being identical was never the goal. “There’s definitely a distance between the younger and older selves,” Soule says. “As much as the core of who you are can remain the same, incarceration changes you. That gave us permission to be different. As Dee, Emily has a vivaciousness and openness and wit. I have more of what I call the ‘avocadoness:’ my exterior is a little tougher and the softness is held back.”
Soule was immediately captivated by Wallace’s script. “It’s not often I read a play in which there’s not one male character,” she says. “So often femininity is presented as light and fluffy. These women have tenacity and strength. Also, it seemed so lean and muscular in its storytelling. Naomi’s language is incredibly crafted; her words are so particular, each one feels treasured.”
The play’s political undertones also resonated. After all, these two uneducated, lower-class women, so full of hopes and dreams, are undone by prejudice, sexism, and social indifference, which sadly makes them analogous to many people today. However, Soule says, “Naomi set the play far enough in the past that audiences don’t look away when it brings up current correlations. Yes, as a society we’ve come very far, and yet there are ways in which we haven’t. We see police brutality and racism in the media almost every day. What do you do with young people who are blazing to live their lives and at every turn are shut down? I think that’s very now.”
Still, Soule sees something inspiring in Dee and Jamie’s journey. “There’s real dignity and self-worth in the choices they make,” she says. “The world is eating them alive. They’re endlessly acquiescing and cutting away at their self-worth. But [they] never give up. They’re brave enough to think there’s something on the other side.”
Raven Snook is TDF’s associate editor of online content
Photos by Matthew Murphy and Gregory Costanzo