Fancy Maids at the Rave Theater Festival
Review by Anna Altheide
Fancy Maids, a one act play written and directed by Harold Hodge Jr., has returned to the stage as a part of Ken Davenport’s Rave Theater Festival. Starring Madeline Grey DeFreece (Idabelle), Essence Brown (Pinky), Chinara Stroman (Queenie), and Kayland Jordan (Louella), Fancy Maids centers around the lives of four black women living and working in a Delaware brothel in 1853, twelve years prior to the abolition of slavery.
Hodge’s production is a raw, provocative glance into the intersectional abuse and treatment dealt to black Americans, particularly women, in pre-abolition America. In the present day #MeToo landscape, Fancy Maids seeks to not only inform its audience of the obvious historical atrocities, but the parallels between slavery, prostitution, and a woman’s right to free bodily agency.
When Idabelle, Pinky, Queenie, and Louella are caught up in an intense dilemma which questions their views of life, death, and revenge, Hodge’s script takes unsettling but justifiable leaps. Set during the Fugitive Slave Act, Fancy Maids stands out as an outcry and reclamation of the past, daring to allow four woman — especially four black women — to stand up to their oppressors, regardless of consequence.
The four main leads (DeFreece, Brown, Stroman, and Jordan) deliver intense and authentically stripped down performances, each dauntless and confident in their characters’ strengths, convictions, and vulnerabilities. Amongst Brown, Stroman, and Jordan, there is a settled, lived in camaraderie between Pinky, Queenie, and Louella, even in moments of household tension. Meanwhile, DeFreece’s more timid Idabelle, our eyes and ears into the world of Pinky’s brothel, is compelling, graceful, and the heart and soul of the whole production.
The cast is rounded out by Reed Pike (William), Isaac J. Conner (Richard), and Dave Polgar (Auctioneer/Man in Brothel/Principal Understudy). Newcomer Pike, a senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, gives a likable performance as William, Queenie’s most frequent hustle. Conner’s portrayal of Virginia slave owner Richard is effectively revolting. Polgar is given little to do, but the jarring segue from the production’s carefree opening scene to the auctioning sequence is impactful.
Though far from lite fare, Fancy Maids, the recipient of the Gerard Cannon Writing Award, is also infused with humor, warmth, and a sisterhood element, especially as Idabelle settles into Pinky’s Pleasure House. Hodge paints bold and compelling strokes and leans into not only each character’s appalling past, but future ambitions and aspirations. These women aren’t simply ruminating on what’s behind them, but leaping toward brighter futures.