A rich tapestry of the black experience comes to life in Aishah Rahman’s “Unfinished Women Cry In No Man’s Land While A Bird Dies In A Gilded Cage.” The women are unmarried and pregnant, biding their time at the Hide-A-Wee Home for Unwed Mothers. The Bird is Charlie Parker.
The play is a self described polydrama, a format that acknowledges the truth of every scene while disregarding the truth of the comprehensive storyline. The two stories happen on the same day and are separate but equal in weight. They are melded by poetic language, the tenor of the times, and the music that informs every scene. Director April C. Turner allows each to unfold and leaves it to the audience to connect them.
It is the day Parker (Nicholas Johnson) dies, and his story is told from the boudoir of his lover and enabler Pasha (Leah Palmer-Licht). They engage in a disturbing, accusatory exchange on an elevated platform adorned with a dressing table and a mirror full of drugs.
On this same day, the girls must decide whether they are giving their children up for adoption. They are tended to by the pious Head Nurse Jacobs (Kenya Templeton). The disparate group includes a tough-talking teen, an upwardly mobile daddy’s girl, a Puerto Rican who has already given birth, an All-American white girl and a conflicted woman.
The lovely script is full of lyricism and hard, ugly truths. It is laced with songs, none of which seems to be specifically composed. Rather, the actors occasionally turn words into music, as though they are so filled with emotion that the spoken word is not adequate to convey what they feel. The singing burbles forth like spring water; the voices so amazing we are left yearning for more.
Themes include oppression, abandonment and the complexity of human relationships. While some of the women became pregnant during an act of love, others didn’t, and all are abandoned by the fathers. In a heartbreaking line, Eryn Victoria’s Mattie asks why she has to have a baby when she’s never had a boyfriend.
Likewise, Parker seems oppressed by his own talent, and Pasha is oppressed by her desire for Parker. It’s a mutually destructive relationship that is fascinating to behold. “You are the genius and I am the power,” she sneers.
The dialogue is rich with dichotomy. Parker alternates between self-loathing and arrogance. The women, who could provide each other with valuable support, often backbite instead. The subject matter is dead serious, but the actors bring both humor and heart to their stories.
This is a sensual performance. Parker’s music, performed backstage by a live trio, is an essential character. Harvey Cummings II makes the sax cry like a baby. Tim Singh’s bass is ominous and playful. Tim Scott’s drums provide a steady beat.
Wilma (LeShea Stukes) remembers her night of conception with a fervor best expressed by the passion she feels for Parker’s music. To her, Parker exemplifies freedom. Parker himself exclaims, “All I ever wanted to do was fly.” He flew, but he could never get high enough. Meanwhile, the girls’ wings were clipped before they had a chance to use them.
‘Unfinished Women Cry In No Man's Land While A Bird Dies In A Gilded Cage’
On Q Performing Arts does Aishah Rahman’s play about Charlie Parker’s last day and a group of mothers-to-be who must decide whether to keep their children.
WHEN: Through March 14 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Duke Energy Theatre at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-335-1010 or carolinatix.org.