Sisters Invisibility and Power
Last week at the Abrons Arts Center I attended Sister Sylvester’s The Maids’ The Maids—a performance that uses Jean Genet’s The Maids as the devising launching pad towards the exploration of labor, immigration, and the imbalance of power from the point of view of two real New York City maids. The first few minutes upon entering a theatre are the moments I use to gather the semiotic information. This works as my sort of compass. I never enter a space with expectations; I simply have a predilection for visual cues. I read the stage like I would a page of a graphic novel. I study the spaces, the frames, and the gutters. Words are non-essential. And on that day, I found myself sharing that experience with two women. They moved through the space, cleaning. As I sit in a hotel room in Los Angeles after attending the largest Latino theater festival in the nation, I hear a knock on the door: Room Service. My room television whispers words of immigration reform and suddenly I am experiencing The Maids’ The Maids all over again.
The play navigates the intersecting fault lines of labor, language and power. We are told early on that the women cleaning the theater will also be our storytellers: we are here to see them. We are here to hear their story. “Come later please,” the cleaning woman leaves to knock on the door of my unlucky neighbor. I go back to the last week’s performance. The maids put on make-up, sweep, and mop when suddenly they are juxtaposed with a theatrical dynamic of an imbecilic representation and exaggeration of ‘maid and madam.’ Okay. I’m in for the ride. The story, as just ‘story’, is familiar. It is a displaced howlround of, what I can only describe as almost recognition. I watch the first instance of one of the maids tell her story in Portuguese. I am happy to discover, after a few seconds of engaging in an audio-receptive language dance, that there are subtitles projected on a screen behind our protagonists. This is an early indication of what will color my entire experience: an experience of almost-but-not-quite, pre-coital-like awareness—like when you ride a roller coaster that shakes your insides, but doesn’t leave you wanting more. As a native Spanish speaker, Portuguese has always manipulated my senses in this way. Language aside, I know these women. I grew up with maids in a Mexico home. Experience aside, I am these women. I have worked as a house cleaner in New York City. Immediately, I am suddenly emotionally navigating the very fault lines that the piece has put before us: am I the labor, or am I the power? Am I both? Am I the same as them? Or different? And in that difference, do I seek sameness? I opt for difference. I opt to tell myself the truth: that for me, cleaning houses was a choice; that I have a terminal degree, and dual-citizenship and—the door unlocks, a Mexican woman says “Ay perdón!” “No, it’s my fault,” I say as I hand her the Do Not Disturb (or is it Later Please?) tag to hang outside my door—where was I? Oh yes. Sameness. Of course I felt connected to them, cleaning houses comes easy to Latin Americans—we are obsessed with emotional and physical cleanliness. And then I land right back into a specific moment of the piece in which we are told “Es por mi que la criada existe” (It is because of me that the maid exists.) Laudeceia Calixto and Rita Oliveira, two Brazilian maids in New York City—both speaking Portuguese and sharing a genuine joy in telling their story that makes their performance genuine and electric—express to us throughout the piece about the hidden self. About making their invisibility, visible. About being tricked into doing a play, but ultimately loving the experience. Lau tells us how she met Kathryn Hamilton, the director of The Maids’ The Maids and how it was upon that meeting that Genet’s The Maids manifested as a literary patron saint that would launch the exploration of these women’s individual stories. Other performers in the piece include Terrence Mintern, whose hyper-chameleonic presence serves as a necessary center point from which the broken narratives circle out of; Sofia Ortega, an Argentinian actor and academic who embodies the fault lines of literal and contextual translation, and Isabel Sanchez from Madrid who, like Terrence, is a centrifugal force. I was disappointed to hear in the narrative about a particular maid from Honduras who was to be part of the piece, and ended up having to back out of the project; because of her cleaning schedule. At first I thought it was a gimmick, but seeing the piece disintegrate before my eyes when it came to tell that particular story, it was evident that Hamilton and her team, had suffered a loss. “Generations of undocumented workers,” I am pulled back to the room, and the news, and to the fact that my experience at Abrons feels ever so distant, and yet, absolutely present. This means something. To me, it means that the piece lives outsides of the confines of the space—where white shirts hang on clotheslines breaking symmetry the stereotype.
To flood a small space with emotion is not an easy feat. I hope, upon entering the space, to see reflections of the artist’s emulated interests. I hope to enter into a place that is somewhat secret, forbidden, and where words and reason are non-essential. That space can be a memory, it can be triggered by the exclusivity of language, it can be a hotel room in LA, or a theater at Abrons Arts Center. But when those spaces collide, and when you realize that the unifying factor is the story of unheard stories, you know you’ve found something worth experiencing. And then you clean it off.