theater review

Theater Review: The Tightly Packed Power of Marys Seacole

From Marys Seacole, at the Claire Tow. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

No matter how neat and orderly the stage may look when you arrive to watch a play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, it’s probably a pretty safe bet that an eruption is coming. Last year, Fairview crept up on New York audiences — smiling and smooth-surfaced with a title and initial tone that suggested televised suburbia — and then tore through the intimate house at Soho Rep with such a vengeance that I saw one overwhelmed audience member cry aloud, in a moment of lights-up and lines blurred, “Is this part of it? Is this part of the play?!” Oh, it’s part of it all right. For Drury, this kind of heart-pounding fission — the sense that too many things that have been violently suppressed for too long are now ripping, Hulk-like, through the seams of narrative neatness and dramatic artifice — is the play. There’s a lava-like current of anger flowing underneath the droll, articulate surface, along with a profound sense of human pathos, a tragic pity and fear for the struggling creatures caught inside toxic systems of their own making.

Now, as Fairview heads for more life at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, Drury’s powerful, densely layered Marys Seacole arrives at Lincoln Center. There’s plenty that separates the two plays: One is an ultra-contemporary examination of race and spectatorship where the fierce fourth wall puncture comes late in the game, while the other is a time-shifting, time-overlapping riff on the biography of real-life 19th-century Jamaican nurse and adventurer Mary Seacole, where the protagonist looks us in the eye from the start. But what makes the plays sisters is a shared shape: that long, quietly roiling build-up to the inevitable boil — a sense of the uncanny during the crescendo, of glitches in the carefully maintained Matrix that will ultimately burst forth into a fugue-like chaos, where things we’ve seen and heard before will circle back, issuing from different mouths and bodies to disturbing, enlightening effect. Most of all, in that ultimate cataclysm, the plays share a ferocious embodiment of ideas, an ability to make an argument not simply verbal but visceral. In Marys Seacole, that argument turns on who does the bulk of the world’s caring, and on how the people who get their hands dirty for the sake of their fellow humans’ well-being are themselves continuously dehumanized.

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s tight, controlled production immediately gives us that little thrill of delight that comes from the incongruous. Into Mariana Sanchez’s antiseptically spotless hospital–waiting-room set — all glass, metal, linoleum, fake plants, and towering walls of Pepto-Bismol–colored tiles — walks a woman who might have stepped out of a daguerreotype. She moves slowly, chest out and head high, and proudly takes her place center stage atop a characterless little contemporary modular side table. Under her crinolines are pink sneakers, but other than that, she’s a straight-backed portrait of mid–19th-century grandeur and grace. This is Mary (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), our heroine, the first and foremost of the Marys Seacole (the play’s title is a plural, like “attorneys general”). The play’s five other actors are all, in their ways, variation on a theme: Their names are Mamie (Gabby Beans), May (Lucy Taylor), Merry (Marceline Hugot), Miriam (Ismenia Mendes), and Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel).

Apart from Duppy Mary — who lurks menacingly throughout the play long before she speaks, and whose prefix is a Carribean word of African origin referring to a ghost or spirit, often a wicked one — the names of these women are far less important than their roles. They are all, at some point in Marys Seacole, mothers and healers. They are all daughters. They are all, at some point, women of business. They are also, as trios, reflections of each other: Bernstine, Beans, and Kandel are black women, while Taylor, Mendes, and Hugot are white. In moments, each trio can be read as a three-generation family unit. In other moments, they seem like manifestations of the same women at different ages. They become doctors, patients, performers, and patrons as needed. They are all here to weave the centuries-crossing story of Mary Seacole’s extraordinary life, both its actual occurrences and its lingering echoes — and they’re also here to show us, moment by moment in no uncertain terms, who’s expected to do the working and who the playing and paying. In one frenzied, fantastic scene, the white women literally get to playact as victims in an active-shooter drill, all histrionic flourishes and eye-rolling groans, while the black women, who are nurses in triage training, must treat the situation as real. For one side it’s a game, for the other, a job. As Mary and Mamie roll up their sleeves and sink elbow deep in shit, blood, and tears — while the threatening maternal figure of Duppy Mary haunts their personal memories and their deeper, less conscious inheritance — Merry, May, and Miriam lay themselves out to be tended upon. Sometimes cruel and ungrateful, sometimes grovelingly well-meaning, they take their ease, and take up space, while the black women take care of them.

These encounters range from sharp and satirical to macabre and surreal, and they always mark an interruption in Mary’s attempt to tell us her story. “I,” she says to us at the play’s beginning, filling the word with weight and letting it hang in the air. “Me,” she says after a long moment, as if trying out this new word to test the fit. “I,” she says again, making her decision. “I was born in the town of Kingston, in the Island of Jamaica, in, well, sometime in the 19th century. An important event.” It was, reads Drury’s immediately following stage direction. Mary, and her play, are full of vivid, valid pride — If you don’t know who she is, well, look her the fuck up, reads an earlier stage direction — but part of Drury’s gambit is to keep derailing her heroine, to keep throwing her back into the thankless thick of things. As Bernstine’s Mary speaks to us, striking and assured in her first speech (much of which Drury adapts straight from the real Mary Seacole’s autobiography), Duppy Mary, unblinking and dressed in black, glides in like a ghost and forcibly fixes a Bluetooth device in Mary’s ear. She puts another one in her own before she disappears. It’s one of those glitch-in-the-Matrix moments — a shiver of oddness that Mary tries to smile off. But Drury doesn’t drop seeds that don’t sprout, and that little earpiece will haunt Bernstine’s Mary throughout the play. It’s her connection to her mother (also a “doctress”), to her heritage, to a world she’s trying to escape, to exceed, and to make proud all at once. She’ll keep getting calls from Duppy Mary throughout the play, and the calls will keep dropping — she may not be able to make out her ancestor’s words, but the ghost never goes away.

Part of the menace of Duppy Mary as a mother figure is that she’s part of a disturbing legacy of internalized racism: Mary Seacole’s mother sent her “up the hill” to be “raised by a white lady … and take care of her,” and she did it for a gnarled knot of reasons, from wanting opportunities for her child to wanting her child to learn the world’s cruel rules. “That woman can feed you better than I can, and clothe you better than I can,” Duppy snaps at her daughter, whom she constantly berates for her laziness. Mary herself, in all her pride, tells us repeatedly that she’s a Creole woman — not a black woman — and the daughter of “a soldier, of a good, old Scotch family” with “good Scotch blood coursing in [her] veins.” When she sets off to provide her services in the Crimean war, she does so with gusto at the idea of being “useful to my own British sons.” In her own life she has already experienced racism at American hands — and she’ll experience it again when her many appeals to join the famous Florence Nightingale (Taylor) at the front are coldly rebuffed — but she refuses to believe that her father’s countrymen could treat her with the same dismissive malice. She has created a remarkable self, and yet she’s inherited cruelty along with endurance. “Are you stupid?” she snaps at Mamie during one scene when she, as an older, more experienced nurse, is training the younger woman. And when Mamie stammers, “I’m sorry,” Mary shoots back, “Don’t be sorry, just be better” — which gets a laugh in the moment but makes our blood run cold later, when those same lines come back around, flung at the teenage Mary by the supercilious old white lady who “raised” her.

Marys Seacole moves not in a line but in interrelated swells of narrative, almost like parts of a dream whose connections exist more when you look at them as layers than as sequential beats in a sequence. We see Mary and Mamie as modern nurses, taking care of the catatonic Merry in a home for the elderly, as May stews with concern over her mother and berates the women she’s paying to keep the old lady alive. We see them together on a park bench (perhaps as the same women, perhaps not), waiting as Mamie watches a little white girl that she’s nannying, then forced to make room for Miriam, who pulls up her stroller and takes a seat, here as a young mother utterly overwhelmed with loneliness and exhaustion. Mendes is frighteningly terrific in her hysterical aria — “I just didn’t think it was possible to be so tired and so lonely,” she shriek-weeps, staring wildly at her baby, “that you’re always alone but you’re also literally never alone!” — and Bernstine and Beans are so sharp in their responses that their looks could give you a paper cut. Drury’s satire is brutal but not heartless: It’s not that we should have no sympathy for Miriam who, even in her privilege and well-meaning cluelessness, really is suffering. It’s that we’ve got to recognize the way in which she bulldozes through the scene, zeroing in on the two women of color and immediately expecting them to provide her with emotional support. Pain is inevitable, and human, and okay. Making people that carry a historical burden of paid and unpaid caring responsible for your pain — not so much.

The six women of Marys Seacole are all delivering fierce, finely calibrated performances, from Bernstine’s wry, commanding, charismatic Mary — the show’s steel-cored anchor — to Taylor’s fierce and agile expressions of May’s many forms, all of them acidic and exacting, a Proteus of high-achieving condescension. Beans is especially wonderful as Mamie, who’s got the muscular hopefulness of youth and the inevitable frustration of intelligence burning in her eyes and body. As the youngest woman of color on stage, she’s got to work the hardest: She literally hauls the set pieces around between scenes, and we can see the determination and the anger build in her as her elders — black and white — continue to expect her to fetch and carry. I wish that I had felt more fully eviscerated when Kandel’s Duppy Mary finally lets loose near the play’s end, launching into a tirade that almost brings Mary to her knees — but the slight disconnect here doesn’t feel like an issue of performance but of scoring. Drury and Blain-Cruz let the chaotic violence rain down at full force at the play’s climax, and the intensity and duration are such that it’s hard not to lose the thread and then regain it again over the course of the extended onslaught. Perhaps it’s because, unlike Fairview, Mary Seacole does physically contain its explosiveness (the audience is literally protected from dropping dirt and flying dummy bodies by a knee wall at the front of the set), or perhaps it’s a matter of modulation. In a whirlwind, we’ll catch the important bits as they fly by — like Miss Gulch on her bicycle — but our senses might begin to lose their edge if the blast continues at forte for too long.

“What is your name? Tell me your name!” May snaps at Mary when the play’s climax clicks back into focus. She’s got the unmistakable fury of a woman demanding to see the manager. Mary says her name. “I’ll remember that!” says May. It’s a threat. But Mary is dauntless: “I want you to,” she growls, with all the fire and force of an oncoming train. Marys Seacole is in many ways an act of remembrance for the unremembered. It’s a fierce, complex eulogy and, like Fairview, an exhortation to see both past and present better.

Marys Seacole is at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center.

Theater Review: The Tightly Packed Power of Marys Seacole