BWW Review: Factory 449's Powerful LELA & CO
The riveting story of "Lela & Co" occurs in a country that is not named; it could and, sadly, probably is going on in a number of places.
The production by the Factory 449 theater collective at the Anacostia Arts Center about human trafficking and sexual slavery comes with a warning - "it is intense."
Felicia Curry stars as a precocious, fast-talking 14-year-old who at first jabbers on about her life: She is a "storm-born" child, whose entry into the world is marked by singing by the townswomen, who also sign out those who pass away.
She is severely beaten for eating her own birthday cake before the others can join her - particularly her tough father, who wanted it for his own.
Then suddenly, she is married off to some pal of her brother-in-law, moved to a country in the midst of a civil war, and rented out to "service" the soldiers. Cordelia Lynn's work doesn't depict the acts of sexual violence. Instead, we hear of her everyday brutality and in one case, during a blackout, hear it. It's left to our imagination how awful it really must be.
Curry expertly tailors her hard-living character into an adult, still talking at a fast rate, but now in a lower tone and out of desperation rather than youthful optimism. Throughout, there is strength and resilience that keeps her going.
She is encouraged the most when one steady customer whom she trusts might actually help her, but there is a language barrier that is difficult to overcome.
The tone in Rick Hammerly's strong production is broken just once, during an incongruous scene barking the goods as if in an infomercial. Otherwise, it is relentless and, as they promised at the ticket counter, intense. Greg Stevens' set consists of a lot of box spring mattresses flying around - representing not only Lela's oppressive workplace, but also, in their shiny, silvery coils, a kind of jail, where she cleans up the room where she is held captive as a means of therapy.
As riveting as Curry is throughout, her only other cast member, Renaldo McClinton, does a terrific job as well, taking up every other male role - from the strict father, to the opportunistic first husband, to the soldier on which she pins her hopes.
And the male presence is surely what is dominating Lela's world and the play. Every time she tries to escape even by singing a song, a male voice is added, if not to steer it, but at least to demonstrate that it's always, menacingly there.
The playwright Lynn was only 26 when the play premiered in Britain two years ago. It was based on a true story and some interviewing she did as she developed the play with Desara Bosnia and 1989 Productions.
It's a brutal story that makes an impact.
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.
"Lela & Co," a production by Factory 449, continues through Oct. 1 at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE. Information at 202-355-9449 or online.