Two women break the chains of solitude in this intimate look at the power of friendship in spite of devastating circumstances. After 42 days alone in a cell at a maximum-security prison, born-again Bugaboo is assigned a cellmate whom she calls her “silent little sinner.” Bug sets out to save her cellmate’s soul, but as the play unfolds, it becomes clear that both women are desperate for something outside of themselves.
It’s early morning in the Women’s Block of the Henderson County Jail. The cell on stage is big enough for two inmates but only one of the beds is occupied. The words “Truth Telling” are scrawled in child-like print on the upstage wall.
Then, the morning siren blares and the inmate, Bugaboo (40s), wakes with a start. Before her feet hit the floor, she takes the Lord’s name in vain then prays for his forgiveness while she hides a shiv in her underwear.
Peterson (40s), a disgruntled guard, enters and performs a routine cell check while Bugaboo talks her ear off about everything from Jesus to Tic-Tac-Toe. Bug pauses only long enough to hear that after 42 days alone, she’s finally getting a new cellmate. When she presses for details, Peterson coyly passes Bug a local newspaper and leaves.
Alone, Bug adds “Listening” beneath “Truth Telling” on her “list of things to work on.” When she finally remembers to read the paper, Bug is horrified by the story. So much so that she searches the Bible for guidance. “Rescue the weak and the needy. Delivery them out of the hands of the wicked.”
This verse sends Bug on a mission from God to save the soul of her incoming cellie.
When her new cellmate arrives, Bug does what she does best. She talks. She explains about how the other inmates gave her the nickname “Bug” because, “her mouth was always so big and open all the time that she let the bugs fly right in. Bug! Bugaboo. Bug for short.”
She explains how Henderson County is a just a “waitin’ area type-place.” Some people are waiting on their sentence while others, like Bug are waiting on an empty bed in their “forever home” at Kirkon Women’s Prison where she’ll be serving 25 years to life due to a lifetime of petty drug convictions.
After 30 real-time minutes, The Silent One says nothing.
But when Bug shows true vulnerability by talking about what makes her a good person and how much she loves her kids, The Silent One picks up a piece of chalk and wordlessly agrees to play a round of Tic-Tac-Toe.
Bug just about loses her mind in excitement as she explains that she’s been playing it alone for two months and she is certain that it’s rigged. “Every time it’s the same thing… a tie.” So when The Silent One wins, Bug’s self-confidence is visibly shaken. “I know who you are,” Bug says. “What I mean to say is, I know what you done.” The Silent One lifts her eyes up as Bug begs her to find Jesus before she burns in hell.
At the midpoint of the play, after The Silent One is sentenced to 25 years to life (just like Bug), is seems nothing could get worse. But then, Bug gets a visitor.
While she’s gone, The Silent One goes to Bug’s side of the room and stares longingly at all of the family photos taped up beside her bed and everything is peaceful for a moment. But when Bugaboo returns, she tells The Silent One that she’s too mad and too sad to talk so she vows to take a nap. But, to everyone’s surprise, The Silent One, who has grown accustomed to Bug’s constant chatter, can’t stand the sound of silence and so, for the first time, The Silent One speaks.
“Who came?” she asks gently. “Who came to see you?”
At first, Bug is delighted that The Silent One spoke and she seems happy to tell her new friend that her oldest daughter, Eve, “came all the way down here just to tell me that she won’t be coming back here no more.” But as The Silent One presses for more details about why her daughter won’t come, Bugaboo becomes angry. In a fit of rage, Bug screams, “Why would you want to talk about my kid? You already killed three of your own. Whatchu want with mine?” The insensitive reminder of her gruesome crime renders The Silent One silent all over again.
That night, The Silent One has a night terror. She bashes the side of Bug’s bed and screams, “GET THEM OUT! GET THEM OUT!” Bug wakes up and hollers for Peterson to help,but before Peterson arrives, The Silent One jumps onto Bug’s bed and chokes her. Bug instinctively yanks her shiv out from its hiding spot and brutally stabs The Silent One in the side.
The pain jolts The Silent One awake. The alarm blares as they realize what just happened and are both immediately full of regret. Bug helps The Silent One onto her bed, holds her tight and stops the bleeding with her own sheets while The Silent One swallows her screams and together they pray for the alarm to stop.
Then, the alarm does stop.
From that moment on, they tell each other everything. The Silent One, whose name is Johnna, painfully recounts the night that she got high, crashed her car and accidentally killed all three of her young children. And for the first time, Bug really, really listens.
Bug teaches Johnna how to do Zumba.
Johnna shows Bug how to win at Tic-Tac-Toe.
Bug shows Johnna how to play slap jack.
And together the two women, who have lost everything, learn how to be friends.
But one morning, Peterson arrives to move Johnna to a “forever home.” For a moment, they are hopeful that their friendship will continue at Kirkon Women’s Prison where Bug will be transferred, but Peterson tells them, “No. She’s not going there. She’s going to Silver Heights.”
The two manage a heartbreaking, tearful good-bye, but it isn’t until Johnna is dragged off and Bug is alone that she is finally able to say, “I LOVE YOU.”
Bug waits for a response.
For a moment, there is nothing.
And then, finally, Johnna’s voice is heard from down the hall… “I LOVE YOU.”
In the end, Bugaboo’s heart grows and breaks and she ends where she began: alone in a prison cell made for two.
For those who gripe that there aren’t enough great roles for women, Ryan has taken it upon herself to make sure that there are.
–Stage and Cinema
Peggy "Bugaboo" Clark – (40s, any race/ethnicity) Known for her big mouth and quick temper, this coal miner’s daughter is determined to make something of her long prison sentence by preaching the word of her newfound lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Johnna "The Silent One" – (20s, any race/ethnicity) Not long ago, she was a second-grade teacher, but now this young mother of three has been rendered speechless after committing an unspeakable act while under the influence of opioids.
Peterson – (40s, female, any race/ethnicity) This deceptively perceptive, no-nonsense prison guard was born and raised in the county where she now jails her former classmates.
Setting: Present Day. Women’s Block, Henderson County Jail, West Virginia. A single jail cell made of cinder blocks. Two steel beds and two steel cupboards on either side. A single toilet downstage left. One side of the room is unoccupied while the other boasts old family photos and greeting cards.
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“Playwright Marja-Lewis Ryan (One in the Chamber) has written a moving character study about ordinary women in distress and the way they struggle to cope with terrible circumstances. RECOMMENDED!” –Stage Raw
“It’s not until more than halfway through that playwright Ryan reveals the reason for The Silent One’s incarceration, and when said revelation comes, it transforms her play from a comedic solo-show to a deeply moving two-hander, and one that will stick with you long after its heartrending fade to black.” –StageSceneLA
“Compelling, deeply moving theater.” –StageSceneLA
“Bugaboo & The Silent One is the award-winning writer-director at her hot-button best.” –StageSceneLA
“Powerful and compelling!” –LA Post Examiner
"This timely new drama is an intimate look at the power of female friendship despite devastating circumstances." –BroadwayWorld
"Fans of Orange is the New Black certainly enjoy watching the escapades of female inmates stuck together in prison as they attempt to understand each other and either try to get along or attempt to murder each other." –BroadwayWorld
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The production materials for Bugaboo & The Silent One include:
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Director's Script – Single-sided script with space for director’s notes.