“Price of Bail” at Arts Asylum Challenges Its Audience With Impossible Questions About Family and Self-Sacrifice

A Black woman dances as a Black man stands behind her, mirroring her movements.

SyKnese Fields and Ace Lovelace in “Price of Bail” (Zoe M. Spangler)

“How much would you sacrifice to save the family that destroyed you?” is the question posed by Olivia Hill in her new play Price of Bail (per its official synopsis). “We’ve got to make sacrifices for family,” we hear a mother forcefully insist to her daughters. But there is another question, needling persistently throughout, which is, in answer to that mother: “Do we?” Do we have to make sacrifices for a family that wants to destroy us? And if there is no answer to that first question—no limit to the demand on the extent of our sacrifices, an all-or-nothing requirement of your entire self—how can you build a life for yourself when your whole existence is designed to serve someone else, no matter how much pain they cause you, how insistent they are on keeping you from having any degree of autonomy or happiness?

Hill presents many questions in Price of Bail but no easy answers. The play centers on three sisters—Ilene (Amber Redmond), whose life is taken up with the unending task of navigating her violently abusive husband’s moods; Teace (SyKnese Fields), a sex worker with a good amount of autonomy but still ultimately struggling under the heavy weight of others’ power over her; and Meata (Tahraji Milsap), the youngest, studying and working in costume design, which she uses as a line in to learning about her African ancestry. 

What constitutes family is a question that hangs heavy in Hill’s play, navigated expertly with an unrelenting but unseen hand by director Teresa M. Leggard. The women onstage are shadowed by a cast of men—ancestors who attend them as a silent, dominating force. The quiet influence of ancestry is on display in the subtle and simple set: On one side of the stage is a cozy corner adorned with fabrics, woven baskets, dried grains hanging—a space that Meata is often drawn to; on the other, a corded phone hanging above a bleakly unornamented kitchen cart holding a tub of Morton salt and a scant few other plastic spice jars. In the middle sits a simple formica kitchen table and an armchair on a platform behind it, a throne of sorts for the women’s mother, Ma’Dear (Cecilia-Ananya). The invisible, omniscient men move with a fluidity that is both tender and menacing, playing out LaTryce Anderson’s exceptionally powerful choreography. They watch their descendants, mirror them, even protect them at key moments, but we—and the women—are constantly aware of the power they hold and the danger they pose in their presence. 

The play examines how patriarchal structures dominate women’s lives, even when no men are present. We see this in the ancestral ties, and, more directly, in the palpable absence of the sisters’ brother, in jail on charges of rape, which we, the audience, do not seem encouraged to think are anything but entirely true, despite what Ma’Dear blindly insists. The mother makes no secret of her extreme favoritism of her son over his sisters, demanding they sacrifice themselves for this family member who has caused so much pain (while also, paradoxically, dismissing and disparaging Meata’s interest in developing a connection with their ancestors). The matriarch has tasked her daughters with raising their brother’s bail money, the literal price of which is $3,000, but is, in reality, so much more—a personal cost to their bodies and souls, one which they have to decide if they’re even willing to pay for this destructive man, simply because he shares their blood.

Hill’s work is heavy and deals with subject matters including sexual assault, domestic violence, and child assault that viewers should be well aware of before going in. As a new play running as part of a small theatre festival (the show plays alongside another production, Black Man, MO, by Terrace Wyatt, Jr.), there is a deep rawness to the production. The cast is fantastic and has strong chemistry with each other, but there is a mild sense of stiltedness throughout and a few jarring choices that will hopefully be smoothed out in future productions. (The power of the men’s total silence, for example, is severely undercut by some tonally jarring and entirely unnecessary pre-recorded audio scenes late in the show.) But overall, the impact of Hill’s work is served by this rawness, the general lack of polish, underscoring the lack of clear answers to impossible questions put before us. These threads were never going to be tied up in a neat bow; they are meant to live in us.

Price of Bail, part of the Crescendo Awards Festival, runs through June 10 at the Arts Asylum, 824 E. Meyer Blvd. For more information on this show and “Black Man, MO,” visit www.theartsasylum.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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