“A Thousand Maids” uses comedy to explore prejudices against working women

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Maria Elena Ramirez and Deonna Bouye are both dressed as maids
From Left: Maria Elena Ramirez, Deonna Bouye. A THOUSAND MAIDS World Premiere by Tony Meneses
Natalie Woolams-Torres, Maria Elena Ramirez, Deonna Bouye, Natalie Woolams-Torres on a stage that is set up like a living room
From Left: Natalie Woolams-Torres, Maria Elena Ramirez, Deonna Bouye, Natalie Woolams-Torres. A THOUSAND MAIDS World Premiere by Tony Meneses

Playwright Tony Meneses (The Hombres) brings the world premiere of his new comedy, A Thousand Maids, to the Two River Theater in Red Bank. In it, he shines a light on the army of women who make their living cleaning the homes of others and the levels of prejudice and disrespect the mere thought of their jobs trigger. Meneses tries to get us to look at these women as more than just their job. 

We first meet the spirits of Butterfly McQueen (Deonna Bouye) and Lupe Ontiveros (Maria Elena Ramirez), two actresses who were typecast as maids in dozens of movies during Hollywood’s “Golden Age”. Although they were capable of much more as actresses, typecasting wasn’t the worst of their problems. Because of their respective races, they played parts that were mostly stereotypes of ignorant Black and Latina women. In their movie-role maid’s uniforms, they haunt — and clean — an apartment loaned out to costume designer Cordelia (Natalie Woolams-Torres) as she tries to create maids’ uniforms for a new play.

Cordelia is passionate about using her costumes to convey a sense of the maid characters’ inner lives. Her concerns receive dismissal from the obtuse playwright (Ramirez) who sees the characters as mere personifications of their jobs, and the new-agey, conflict-averse director (Bouye).

Cordelia has her own preconceptions to fight. She cannot understand why any woman would willingly abandon her own dreams to clean up after other people. Cordelia tries to connect with Vivian (Kate Siahaan-Rigg), the twice-weekly Indonesian cleaning lady of her apartment. Vivian, however, will have none of it — she knows exactly what her job and her relationship to her employer entail.

Maria Elena Ramirez, Deonna Bouye are standing and wearing maid uniforms and Natalie Woolams-Torres is sitting at a table.
From Left: Maria Elena Ramirez, Deonna Bouye, Natalie Woolams-Torres. A THOUSAND MAIDS World Premiere by Tony Meneses

Playwright Meneses allows the action to flow not only in the linear timeline of Cordeila’s creative efforts and setbacks but also back and forth in time. He also mixes in scenes from well-known movies and plays, putting the four actors into some wryly funny juxtapositions played at the breathtaking speed of flipping through TV channels.

The four actors each play multiple characters throughout the show, yet under the  sensitive direction of Aneesha Kudtarkar they meld as an ensemble. Alexander Dodge’s modern, slightly sterile New York apartment, lit by Cat Tate Starmer, provides the perfect backdrop to the story. Kara Harmon’s costumes and Gabbie Vincent’s hair and makeup designs help the actors bring their multiple characters to life.

A Thousand Maids is a play to be enjoyed in the moment, with its deeper messages about the potential, the dignity, and the choices of working women sinking in as you think about it later. I cannot congratulate Tony Meneses more highly for succeeding at putting a time- and genre-bending comic spin on this subject. For a subversive evening with four wickedly funny yet serious actors, I suggest you get to the Two River Theater and see A Thousand Maids!

A Thousand Maids is presented in the Marion Huber Theatre at Two River Theater in Red Bank through April 28th.  For more information or to get tickets, go to tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.