One of the most remarkable things about Aishah Rahman's Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage is that the elaborate 15-word title is almost a literal description of what the play is about. Directed by Stefanie Willis, a new production of Unfinished Women just opened at Out ch'Yonda. This staging has some problems, but the sweet music along with the sheer raw originality of Rahman's vision should hold the interest of many theatergoers.
Unfinished Women is split into two separate but emotionally connected story lines, both set in 1955. The first focuses on a group of pregnant young women at a home for unwed mothers. The ladies come from diverse backgrounds, and each got stuck in her unenviable position in a different way. Even the authoritarian Nurse Jacobs—played with unrestrained passion by Virginia Hampton—admits in a private monologue that the girl she calls her niece is actually her daughter.
Many of the pregnant women cling to hopeless fantasies that a man will arrive to help them lift their heavy burdens. It's clear to everyone, though, both onstage and in the audience, that this just ain't gonna happen. The looming choice facing these women is whether they want to give their babies up for adoption or become social pariahs by trying to make their way as single mothers in the '50s. A classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario if ever there was one.
The second storyline takes place in the boudoir of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker's mistress, Pasha. It tracks the final tense blurry moments of the iconic jazz musician's existence, right before he dies of a heroin overdose. Bird fights with his girlfriend, reconciles, then starts snarling all over again. He's unsteady on his feet. He's weak. He's weary. Even if you weren't familiar with his infamous death, you can tell it's only a matter of time before the end.
Rahman weaves these two strands together with a strange but effective device. Charlie Chan, the invisible man, is a black character in minstrel black face who serves as a clownish narrator who highlights the absurdity of characters enduring so much agony. Chan wanders back and forth between the two scenes drawing subtle connections between each throughout the course of the performance.
A beautiful but functional set serves this double play well. The fantastic music performed by Wali Shakur (saxophone), Mark LeClair (cello), Zack Freeman (beat boxing) and Tur-Koys (sound sourcing) likewise provide an appropriate foundation for the actors to spit out Rahman's furious melodic language.
Unfortunately, the words didn't come as loose as I would've hoped. Unfinished Women is a play about freedom embodied in jazz, freedom from the heavy burdens imposed by race, gender, motherhood, loneliness and even art. The play should be fueled by the music of language. Rahman's characters blow out words as if they were notes from instruments, playing in complex harmony with all the other players, both on stage and behind the stage. In many cases, the delivery here seemed stiff, not at all like the classic bebop that serves as Rahman's main inspiration.
This might have been a result of standard opening night tensions. Several characters gave uneven performances, delivering lines with confidence and poise during some stretches then getting self-conscious during others. There's definitely a lot of talent up on stage, so there's reason to hope the overall performance will improve during the final weekend of the run.