Camden Repertory Theater celebrates Black History Month with an immersive production of Aishah Rahman’s rarely produced underground classic
Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage
directed by Chyna Michele
music direction by JoJo Streater.
WHEN: February 10 through March 25 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 5 p.m. There will be four public previews February 1 through February 4, followed by two press previews on February 8 and February 9.
WHERE: Camden Repertory Theater, 445 Mechanic St. in Camden, NJ 08104
To purchase tickets to Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage, call (856) 438-8430 or visit www.camdenrep.com.
Boasting a live jazz band and presented in Camden Rep’s unique venue — a typical New Jersey row house with only 20 seats.
March 12, 1955: on the same day that virtuoso jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker (Ozzie Jones) is dying in the plush boudoir of his wealthy European patroness (Jenna McLaughlin), five teens living in the Hide-a-Wee Home for Unwed Mothers — Wilma (Jalynn Brunson), Midge (McLaughlin), Mattie (J’Lynn Henry), Consuelo (Shaleah NavarroShaleah Navarro) and Paulette (Alani Burke) — must decide whether to keep their babies or put them up for adoption. Meanwhile, Hide-a-Wee head nurse Jacobs (Desi P. Shelton) holds a closely guarded secret of her own, and the mysterious Charlie Chan (Samir Nichols) oversees all.
Mixing poetry and live music into a rich tapestry of longing and love, Unfinished Women possesses a rare and haunting lyricism not soon forgotten. As in Rahman’s other work, jazz, rhythm and meter are integral to the structure and flow of the piece.
“My plays are about men and women whose voices, and therefore their lives, have been muted,” she said in an interview. “Their body beats are music, whether it’s in the way they speak, move, or in their world view. It’s in the improvisational way they have been forced to deal with life. My characters are not linear folks. There’s poetry and rhythm in their speech, and it all amounts to music.”
Born in Harlem where she was raised in the foster care system, Rahman was known for her participation and contribution to the Black Arts movement, one of the only American literary movements to merge art with a political agenda. As the artistic and aesthetic arm of the Black Power movement of the ’60s and ’70s, it called for the creation of poetry, novels, visual art and theater to reflect pride in Black history and culture as a means to awaken Black consciousness and achieve liberation.
Unfinished Women is the perfect fit for Camden Rep, a professional company that uses the performing arts as social activism to encourage, heal and transform lives. It was founded by Desi P. Shelton in 2005 when, returning to the city with an M.F.A. in theater from Sarah Lawrence College, she heard her friends and neighbors complain they were not welcome at local venues, had no artistic outlet in Camden, and that their stories were being left untold. In addition to producing plays, the company uses theater to improve life and literature skills of at-risk children through its P.A.C.E. (Preparing Artists for College Entrance) program, which helps students prepare for college auditions; assists with the application and financial aid process; offers supplementary education in written language, cultural, financial, emotional and social literacy; and creates jobs and apprentice training for returning college students. Shelton has received the Valentine Foundation Award for female executives and is a Dodge Emerging Leader. She completed the Woman and Power Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is a recipient of a Leeway Transformation Award for social change artists.
Unfinished Women was originally produced by Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977.
Rahman’s other plays include The Mojo and The Sayso, Only in America, Chiaroscuro and three plays with music, Lady Day: A Musical Tragedy, The Tale of Madame Zora and Has Anybody Seen Marie Laveau? Her plays were produced at the Public Theater, Ensemble Theatre, BAM and theaters and universities across the United States. She served as director of playwriting at the New Federal Theater in New York. Among her numerous fellowships, grants and awards were a special citation from the Rockefeller Foundation of the Arts for dedication to playwriting in the American Theater. Her plays are distributed by Broadway Play Publishing. “Chewed Water: A Memoir,” her story of growing in the foster care system, was published in 2001 by University of New England Press. A graduate of Howard University and Goddard College, Rahman was a Professor of Literary Arts at Brown University, where she taught from 1992-2011. She died in 2014 at the age of 78.
The creative team for Unfinished Women includes scenic designer Charletta Jones and costume designer Nala Johnson. The lighting designer is Angelique Haynesworth, who also associate produces. Christopher Thompson is the production stage manager. Camden Repertory Theater is supported, in part, by the William Penn Foundation and the Geraldine Dodge Foundation.