Encore Michigan

‘Who Will Sing for Lena’ may as well be ripped from the headlines

Review November 23, 2017 Tanya Gazdik

DETROIT — The Matrix Theatre Company could have have anticipated what would be playing out in the news headlines on a daily basis when it chose to present a play that centers on the abuse — sexual and otherwise — endured by a woman in 1944 Georgia.

Her reaction to it, including the denial she had to embrace in order to rationalize her decision to continue to work for him, is heartbreaking, and familiar. Sadly, things have not changed a lot for women in this country in the past seven-plus decades.

Who Will Sing For Lena is a one-woman play that gives voice to Lena Baker, a black woman who killed her abusive white employer in self-defense. Using actual trial transcripts, the play lays out the background and motivations for her actions, relaying the events that laid up to the killing, the trial and ultimate execution

There is no happy ending in this story, And knowing that she is executed is not a spoiler. It’s obvious from the play’s beginning, since a large and foreboding electric chair takes up a corner of the small stage.

Ashley M. Lyle takes on the astounding task of never leaving the stage during the 80-minute performance and acting in repeatedly emotionally difficult scenes. She flubs her lines a few times, but given that the premise of the play is Lena telling the story of her life, the non-precise speech is actually quite authentic sounding. You quickly start to believe that this is Lena recounting her very sad tale. As noted in the program, the performance contains adult language and situations, and there are potential triggers for rape; physical, emotional, verbal and sexual abuse; violence, kidnapping. Like I said, it’s not upbeat . But Lena does manage to find some humor in otherwise dour situations.

The spartan set, designed by Christina Killmar, has just the right elements to support the action without overwhelming it. Moody lighting design from Amy Schneider does a great job in conveying the seriousness of the action transporting.

The play was directed by Casaundra Freeman, who notes in a very personal note in the program that her life parallels Lena Baker’s in many ways. “I know a little bit about the hell Lena Baker suffered,” she writes. “Many women do. Far too many.” The program also includes information about the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Power and Control wheel that details the different ways physical and sexual violence manifest in an intimate relationship.

With any luck perhaps the play along with the current events of the day will save some women and men — who can also be abused — from continuing to be victimized. It’s too late for Lena Baker, but hopefully not too late for many others.

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