I recently received an invitation by a theater company in Camden, New Jersey, that I’d never heard of to see a play I’d never heard of. I was hesitant but also curious, even more so when I learned that the theater, Camden Repertory Theater performed in the living room of a row home. But upon reading about the play, “Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While A Bird Dies In A Gilded Cage,” and learning that it was originally produced in Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977, I became intrigued. I wanted to see this rarely produced play. I made the trek into New Jersey and couldn’t have been more rewarded by this unusual play.
There were only a dozen chairs along one wall of the house where the audience sat. In the back was a jazz band. They were there to play many the songs of and in the style of Charlie Parker, the great jazz sax saxophonist, composer, and band leader. Through the play, Parker sits on one end of the performance space with Pasha, his wealthy patroness who is devoted, even one might say obsessed with him. But she does take care of him. She is constantly begging him to impregnate with her. She also provides him with drugs, a habit he’s had all his adult life.
Through the conversations with her, we learn of his despair, his frustrating life, despite being one of the greatest jazz musicians of all-time. But he can’t even enter clubs when he is not performing because he is Black.
The play takes place on the day Charlie “Bird” Parker died in 1955, at the age of 34. And on the main part of the stage that day, we are in the Hide-a-Wee Home for Unwed Mothers. Four pregnant teens and a fifth, who just had a baby, reside there. They are all Charlie Parker fans. But music isn’t what’s on their minds. Their concern is what will they do with their babies!
Each of the women describes the circumstances in which she got pregnant. From a one-night stand with a guy she met at a dance, to a promiscuous girl who loves sex, to another who was raped, there is also wide range of the men who impregnated them. The bottom line is that none of those men are around- not even the one who fathered the child currently at the Home, though the girl, the mother of the baby awaits his arrival.
These girls hate that women are categorized as whores or saints, depending on their sexuality. They talk about what love is to them. One of their fathers insists that his daughter give up the baby for adoption. They aren’t sure what to do. The nurse in charge is constantly reminding them that they must sign adoption papers. She is a devout Christian, but she too has her story.
There are loud arguments among the girls. They squabble all the time, and as we are so close to them, we feel the power of their frustrations and anger. Charlie Parker is also struggling with Pasha as the scenes shift back and forth. What these girls and Parker have in common is the burning desire to be free.
Playwright Aishah Rahman has created a slice… no slices of life that we don’t usually see. She was a foster child in Harlem herself. She has seen these lives and she brings it powerfully to us in this formidable play, seamlessly directed by Chynah Michele at Camden Repertory. If you’ve never been to Camden, now there is a reason to go!
“Unfinished Women Cry in No Man’s Land While a Bird in a Gilded Cage” at Camden Repertory Theater, 445 Mechanic St., Camden, NJ 08104, 856-438-8430 camdenrep.com thru March 25, 2023