Sister Sylvester’s The Maids’ The Maids Opens Oct. 31
A note from the dramaturg:
I was just re-watching a video we shot in early summer during the first rehearsals we did for The Maids’ The Maids, (opening Oct. 31 at Abrons Arts Center; tickets $20). It was unpleasantly hot that day, and I’m wearing multiple layers of clothing—basically every shirt, light sweater, jacket, and hat we could find in the space, even a bright pink rain slicker. We’re working with a woman I’ll call Juana, one of our collaborators on the piece, and we’re having her teach us how to be one of her nicknames. She has several, it turns out, each referring to a different part of her life, and this one was “Rambo.” Even though I’m not an actor in the piece (I’m just the dramaturg), when she cast us in roles, she chose me to be Rambo, I guess because I was the only man in the room, or because she likes to flirt with me. (I got my own nickname during rehearsal: “El lechero,” the “milkman” who Genet’s maids lust after in his original play.)
I’m wearing all of these clothes because Rambo is the nickname Juana got while illegally crossing the border, and you’re dressed against the nighttime cold of the Nogales desert. I am quite warm though, and sweating under all those layers, as she has me scurrying back and forth in the rehearsal room, stopping every couple steps to yelp and tug at my pants. “Espinas!” she explains—thorns or cactus needles caught in your pants. You can’t stop to pull them out, so you try to keep the pants off the skin. Then we stop and drop into a crouch. It’s time to rest. The only food you have is in the front pockets of your clothes. There’s no light. You cross when there’s no moon. No cigarettes, no cell phones. Complete darkness and silence.
In the video, I’m panting, sitting cross-legged next to Juana, who’s quietly starting to cry. Isa, the Spanish actress translating for her (Juana doesn’t speak English), is sitting across from me and staring at her hands in her lap. Kathryn, who’s filming, trains the camera on Isa; we’re all slightly embarrassed and awkward. After a moment, Juana starts speaking; Isa takes a long moment to work out the translation, and then explains: “Only in that moment, everyone remembers God. Then, when you arrive here, you don’t remember him anymore. But in that moment, every single one remembers God.”
Working on The Maids’ The Maids is one of the strangest and, indeed, occasionally ethically complicated things I’ve ever done. It came about when my friend and collaborator Kathryn Hamilton was staying at a friend’s apartment in TriBeCa, where he employs a housekeeper, a Brazilian woman named Lau. Lau and Kathryn got to know one another, and then one day, when Kathryn was heading home, Lau popped out the door of a different apartment she was cleaning and waved Kathryn over. “Come see this!” she said, and took Kathryn on a quick tour of a ridiculously large apartment formed by knocking out the wall between two adjoining buildings. After showing her around, Lau took her over to the couch and said, “Come on, let’s sit down and pretend we’re rich!” And it clicked in Kathryn’s head immediately that she was now in a real life moment from Jean Genet’s The Maids.
Over the course of six months, Lau invited two of her friends to join us in developing this show, which is basically a pair of contemporary housekeepers helping a bunch of theater artists make what is perhaps the most accurate (if utterly incomplete) presentation of Genet’s angry, campy, violent, and perverse play that I can imagine. It takes place in three languages (English, Spanish, and Portuguese), not because we’re being precious, but because English is not a language in which everyone is conversant. (We had to fly in the director’s cousin just to have a stage manager who could speak all the languages required.) The performance is realized by an award-winning Spanish actress; a performer and actor who’s worked with the likes of Ethyl Eichelberger and the Ridiculous Theater; an Argentinian performance artist; and a pair of slightly cracked but incredibly wonderful Brazilian domestics, one of whom sings choir and the other of whom was once a professional party girl. The design is by a Colombian artist (Juan Betancurth) whose work explores the relation of people and objects through BDSM-inspired apparatuses, which, during our semi-guerilla photo shoot (by the wonderful Maria Baranova) at the Park Avenue Armory, Peter Sellars dubbed “too perfect,” before going back to his work on St. Matthew’s Passion.
The Maids’ The Maids is a meditation on art, labor, and identity, which reveals two separate but overlapping New York Cities: One that serves, and one that is served.
Please join us,
—Jeremy “El lechero” Barker & Everyone at Sister Sylvester
P.S. The woman I called Juana will not actually be in the performance, unfortunately. She is a fantastic woman—we brought her in as a “maid” and discovered she was a much better “Madame,” who knew exactly how to treat household help…let’s say, impolitely…based on her experiences with her own maids in her home country in Central America. If you’re curious why a woman who could afford two maids would elect to risk an incredibly dangerous border crossing into the US and ultimately wind up doing a job she once held in such disdain, that’s unfortunately something I never was able to learn.