Eureka Lewis' renegade new theater piece What They'll Remember, a self-described "dramatic stage play with music", opens with an unseen female announcer who declares (after reminding us to silence our electronic devices), "You are now visitors at a women's prison..." The audience is then treated to the first song of the night, "My Life". Three of the characters sing the stark, straightforward lyrics with hauntingly soulful delivery-- almost as if they are hoping that their cries for understanding and sympathy will fly like birds above the thick prison walls. The intimate setting of New York City's famous Nuyorican Poet's Cafe serves as the perfect venue for the play, set in the fictional McMurphy Correctional Facility for Women. It's not long before the audience, only a small distance away from the all-female cast, really feels like they are locked up with the characters-- complete with the pressure cooker of emotions and the subsequent outbursts (mostly verbal, and on one occasion physical...) which resonate throughout the entire venue. Each of the inmates-- Michelle, Taylor, Bianca, Heather, and Charley-- are in prison for life, and two of them are on death row. Early on, we learn that these women were productive members of society, were not gang members or hardened criminals, and had no prior history of trouble: As one character puts it, they were each essentially "the girl next door". At some point, they became so enraged that they committed murder. Why?
That's the question asked by Dr. Erin Oakley (ReW STaRR), a psychologist who sincerely believes that she can keep other women and girls from making the same life-altering mistakes if she learns why these five inmates ended up in jail. Oakley initiates a six-week study, meeting with the women both as a group and individually, to "uncover the source of their destructive behavior". She even agrees to volunteer her time for free. The prisoners are suspicious of the study at first (One character asks, "What's in it for us?"), but soon give in to the enticement of catered food and a few hours out of their cells each week. We then meet the inmates: Michelle (the wonderful Tadaa) is mistrustful, bitter, intense, and uninhibited ("I say what I mean, and I mean what I say, and that's all there is to it!"). Her bestie Taylor (Nandine Devi) is high-spirited and scrappy-- and her character adds some much-needed moments of humor and levity to the play. Bianca (Jessica Sylvester) has found religion in prison, frequently mentioning God and quoting the Bible. Heather (Rachel Navarro), the frequent target of bullying by Michelle and the only inmate who's not a woman of color, is in prison for killing her child-- although she swears she "blacked out" and doesn't remember doing it. (The other characters tease her about her "Lifetime Television for Women"-like story.) And then there's Charley (Anita Purcell), a mother who wears her despair on her face, and for a reason. She's served 15 years, but 10 of them was for a crime she didn't commit-- and through subsequent circumstances, she's now on death row. We learn that, barring a miracle, Charley won't live to see the final week of the program. Her tragic story is told in song-- again, with clear-cut lyrics, but with Purcell's soaring operatic style.
A play about women in prison could easily turn into a heavy-handed, preachy melodrama or an unintentional piece of camp. But there's not one wasted line of dialogue or unrealistic moment in What They'll Remember. All of the actors get their chance to firmly develop their characters and to tell those characters' stories. Thanks to the bold script and the impressive, energetic talents of the youthful cast, those stories really come to life-- and, needless to say, they are not easy to listen to. An example is Ms. Sylvester's Bianca. She's labeled by the other characters as a one-note religious freak-- but when she tells her sad saga, it offers one of the play's many pieces of insight into the life of women behind bars. Specifically, she reveals how life in prison is actually far preferable to the life of an abused woman which she was living before. The music, composed by Andres Chez Lewis, serves as a welcome adornment to the tense drama, as well as a showcase for the impressive vocal talents of Ms. Purcell, Tadaa, and supporting cast members Lia Holman and Nellanna Mupier. Colorful fashion accessories notwithstanding, ReW STaRR expertly plays a character very different from her public image of urban scenester. As the no-nonsense Dr. Oakley, her character is in the same vein of rare female characters (Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson on "Law and Order: SVU" comes to mind.) who can be staid and tough without losing their innate female compassion and empathy.
The situation of the inmates in What They'll Remember may seem hopeless, as echoed by their prison warden in a song towards the end of the play. The audience, however, expects some degree of closure and/or hope at the conclusion-- particularly because through the course of the show, we really feel some degree of empathy for all the characters. Writer/director Eureka Lewis ultimately honors our expectations-- but just like with the characters, that sense of hope comes in unexpected ways.
What They'll Remember runs on Sundays at 7PM through December 4th at The Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, 236 East 3rd St, New York City. Visit www.WhatTheyllRememberNYC.com for tickets and more information.