When people like Mary Tanner and Jackie Welch, both of them longtime contributors to Nashville’s theater scene, announce a new production, local audiences greet it with more than passing interest; they come expecting to witness high craft at work. When the production seeks to explore racial attitudes, audiences can also rightfully expect a thought-provoking evening. All these elements are in place for the Willful Women production Breaking the Silence, currently playing at Darkhorse Theatre, but the evening falls far short of expectation.
Breaking the Silence consists of 15 sketches, vignettes, and monologues. These brief performances are bookended by a series of questions, spoken by the actresses, meant to solicit the audience’s own attitudes about race. In her program notes for the production, Welch explains that the piece “reflects what we become when wearing the silence woven from fear. It suggests we try on something louder.” Unfortunately, the weave of this cloth lays bare a weak body beneath.
The first few vignettes deal with the ways we seek comfort in racial stereotypes. These are interleaved with mimed stage business emblematic of the ways in which territorial attitudes create racial barriers. Then follows a series of sketches that deal with the ways in which cultural differences get translated into racial differences. At various points, the audience is barraged with further questions and ideas for thought. During some of these sketches, the players try literally “to break the silence” by engaging audience participation.
The climax of the piece consists of two extended monologues, “Evelina” and “Bark and Squeak.” In “Evelina” Tanner is a white woman recalling the black companion of her childhood with the regret that she could not get beneath Evelina’s skin to know who she really was. “Bark and Squeak” is Welch’s extended portrayal of a homeless black woman who claims to be Jesus; she ends by asking the question of the evening. “What if you met yourself in a dark alley at night. What are you?”
If this synopsis of the performance seems somewhat chaotic, the production is even more so in the theater. While some of this chaos is intended to disorient the audience and open up their minds, it does not make for effective theater. Nor does the constant atmosphere of questioning that serves in place of character and action. This may seem like an awfully basic rule, but good theater happens when action intercepts character. Philosophy, polemic, even questioning can be a spur to such activity, but when they become substitutes for character and action, the stage dwindles to the size of a seminar room.
Tanner and Welch themselves acknowledge that Breaking the Silence lacks a sense of stage. Responding to the question of what this production intends to be, Mary Tanner’s program note replies, “It is what it is.” In other words, it’s a vehicle for discussion and consciousness-raisingsomething not at all without value. Pieces that require more of the audience frequently make us more aware than those that simply give to us. And the skits and sketches in Breaking the Silence are frequently so indirect and impressionistic that they demand our participation. The direct questions and the hints of action need the completion of the viewer. In light of this, it seems that church groups, school classes, and sensitivity-training seminars might be better served by Breaking the Silence than a theater audience.
While the piece makes for poor theater, it’s worth noting that both actresses’ technique remains at a high level. Welch’s sense of timing never leaves her for a moment, and her ability to underplay a part helps to make the homeless woman of “Bark and Squeak” both realistic and ironic. Although Tanner’s performances have less irony, they compensate with a great deal of poignancy. There is a particular desolation to her “Evelina” monologue that keeps the saccharine in the cupboard. Perhaps Tanner and Welch could expand on these two characters for a true theater piece.
Breaking the Silence continues at Darkhorse Theatre through Sept. 14. Show times are 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 2:30 p.m. Sun. Call 615-664-1686 for more information.
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