The story of Cordelia Lynn’s Lela & Co. is a universal story, told across many borders and many nationalities, ethnicities, and races; during wartime and peacetime, at Super Bowls, World Cups, and Bowl Games, through lone actors, organized syndicates, and police departments.
Ironically, the story of Factory 449’s Lela & Co. is also seldom told: buried beneath layers of fear and trauma, as well as the horror associated with the telling, its story frequently remains hidden within the teller.
Doubly and triply ironic, the true story told to playwright Cordelia Lynn by an anonymous teller was then conceived and developed by Lynn with Desara Bosnja and 1989 Productions into the story told to the audience by Lela, even though the character Lela in the play never actually tells her story to those around her.
Such is the layering of stories and non-stories in Factory 449’s powerful, and emotionally exhausting Lela & Co., now playing at the Anacostia Arts Center.
Directed with fierce commitment by Rick Hammerly, Felicia Curry plays the teenager Lela, who grows up in a woman-dominated household, with a single patriarch at its center. Curry gives Lela, the youngest of three sisters, all the innocence that a petite, pre-pubescent 13-year-old girl from the country can have: too naive, too trusting, and too betrayed by those who should love her.
Curry’s performance deepens as Lela becomes increasingly aware of her plight, until it overflows. We, the audience, can do nothing but sit back and absorb the torrents of grief and endurance that such a life illustrates.
Young Lela’s life changes when she visits her recently married, older sister, who now lives in the big city. Her sister’s husband arranges a “date” for Lela with an old college buddy who is visiting from a neighboring country. In short order, Lela has fallen for the swaggering college buddy, who then takes Lela back home with him.
Lela’s horror story is about to begin. Such are the victims of sex trafficking and child slavery. Betrayed by family members and then disappeared, their identities are reduced to the services and profits they garner.
The men in Lela’s life are all played by Renaldo McClinton. From the father who loved her but marked her as ungrateful, to the despicable brother-in-law and his college buddy who used her for profit, to the friendly U.N soldier-john who gave her an unrealistic hope for freedom, McClinton’s performance is varied and compelling. We want the men to somehow be different, but the systems of violence in which they live are too endemic to violate without severe repercussions, and none possess the moral courage to take a different, anti-cultural path.
Playwright Cordelia Lynn has made Lela’s story rhetorically rich, making no attempt at vernacular authenticity. Given the universality of the tale she’s telling, such a choice was wise even as it adds a little distance between the audience and the horrific gravity of the events unfolding before them.
The set, by Greg Stevens, though rustically representative, remains abstract, as do the costumes by Scott Hammar. Sound design by Tosin Olufalabi and lights by William D’Eugenio add to the theatrical style.
To be sure, some people’s lives are impossible for most Westerners to imagine: they are either too anomalous, too dissimilar, or too horrific to conjure. Such stories rely on melodrama for their telling.
Lela & Co, ironically, avoids the melodrama, even though this tale of innocence betrayed has all the earmarks of good melodrama, minus the hero, that is.
Fortunately, this Lela & Co. has only a brave, spirited heroine, even without a happy ending.
Running Time: one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission