PRINT May 2019



Jackie Sibblies Drury, Marys Seacole, 2019. Performance view, Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, February 8, 2019. From left: Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel), Miriam (Ismenia Mendes), and Mary Seacole (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

THE SNEAKERS, six pairs in all, are pink. Every actress who appears in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole (2019) wears them—with jeans, with scrubs, beneath petticoats. The anesthetized set, by Mariana Sanchez, is spare: A hospital bed, a reception desk, and a waiting area adorned with potted plants are surrounded on three sides by tiles that match, almost exactly, the color of the actresses’ shoes. Flattering, photogenic, and distinctively of this moment, the rosy shade nonetheless seems almost threatening, mutant, evoking the soigné efforts of corporate branding run amok.

Mournful bagpipes keen in from the speakers; soon, they are mixed with a throbbing house beat. Quincy Tyler Bernstine enters in Victorian dress and speaks directly to the audience, announcing herself as Mary Seacole and delivering a breathtaking monologue that sketches the historical figure’s remarkable life, stretching from colonial Jamaica, where she spent her childhood, to the front lines of the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers. Much of the text Bernstine declaims is drawn from Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, Seacole’s 1857 autobiography. Drury generously permits Mary to speak to the present, at length, in her own words.

Her language bristles with both tenacity and exasperation, born of years invested in the fraught project of uplift. “I. Am a Creole. I have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins,” she declares. Narrating her accomplishments, speaking of her “affection for a camp-life. A war-life,” Mary is devoted to her own exceptionality, though she possesses a discomfiting disdain for her origins: She boasts of her love of work, which, she notes, distinguishes her from the stereotypical “lazy Creole.” As she speaks, Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel), so named by Drury for the malevolent spirits of Jamaican lore, enters swathed in funereal black. She digs a finger into Bernstine’s wig and tucks a Bluetooth headset into her ear. It comes alive with a digital chirp.

Performance view of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole, 2019, Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, February 8, 2019. From left: Merry (Marceline Hugot) and Miriam (Ismenia Mendes). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

As she concludes her speech, Mamie (Gabby Beans) enters, recognizable as a nurse from our own century. She removes Mary’s dress, revealing bright-purple scrubs beneath the layers of crinoline. The costume change initiates a new scene, into which Mary retreats behind the fourth wall; a maudlin sitcom ensues. Marys Seacole operates by such wild traversals of setting and temporality, ricocheting between past and present. Throughout, the only constant is the actresses, three black, three white, constituting two intergenerational trios. Inside each scene, the characters almost never address one another by name. In the program, however, they are given appellations that are near-homophones for Mary—almost the same, but not quite.

In this first scenario, an older white woman, Merry (Marceline Hugot) is dying; her daughter, May (Lucy Taylor), and granddaughter, Miriam (Ismenia Mendes), sit by her bedside; Mary and Mamie are the Jamaican nurses paid—not enough, one imagines—to care for her. May is a woman whose familial anxieties manifest in cruelly barked commands to the nurses; Miriam is a bratty teen whose own anxieties—about aging, loss, the realities of a body’s decrepitude—lead her, at one point, to pull the plug on her grandmother’s heart monitor. The ensemble performs, as in Drury’s other plays, with a slightly mannered enunciation, their words skidding in an oil slick. Though grounded in naturalism, the performance style is unsettling, hard to pin down, like watching a film with no room tone. Something is off, but what?

Mary and Mamie clean up Merry, who has shit the bed, with brisk efficiency, so unfazed by the body’s expulsions that they can simultaneously focus on their own breakneck exchange in patois. Generational perspectives emerge on the topics of marriage and childbearing. Notwithstanding the tensions and emotional difficulties of being together, the white threesome shares time and space as a family; such proximity is never made available to the black characters. Mary and Mamie are entwined not by biology, but by work; each shares her experience of being sent away by her own mother at a young age. Throughout the play, Mary is bedeviled by Duppy Mary, her maternal ghost, who contacts her via Bluetooth. (This supernatural haunting is cut with humor: Service is spotty, calls are often dropped.)

I want to refuse any notion that this is a play “about” race, since the preposition wrongly suggests a perspective oriented from the outside, when white supremacy suffuses everything.

Merry emerges from her rinse in the shower not in a hospital gown but in Victorian garb, her hair magically coiffed into perfect ringlets. Soon enough, all the characters are transported to a scene at Blundell Hall, Seacole’s hotel in Kingston, with each emerging from the wings in period dress. The white women drink rum, trying to avoid fever, and the black women again provide for them. Another woozy shift lands the group at a contemporary playground, where Mary and Mamie are now nannies. Mamie receives a picture via text of her own daughter, who is being raised back in Jamaica, separated from her by thousands of miles. Miriam, now a young mother pushing a stroller, arrives and attempts to befriend the women, though she soon descends into sobs about the isolation of new motherhood. When Miriam learns where Mamie is from, she squeals about her love of the food and the “culture” she experienced at an all-inclusive hotel on Montego Bay, where she and her now husband stayed when they needed a “break from wedding planning.”

Performance view of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole, 2019, Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, February 8, 2019. From left: Miriam (Ismenia Mendes), Mary Seacole (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel), May (Lucy Taylor), Mamie (Gabby Beans), and Merry (Marceline Hugot). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Privilege thuds, elephantine, despite remaining invisible to those who wield it. Back at the hospital, Mary is now an impatient doctor leading nurses through an active-shooter drill. Taylor as May showcases her knifelike ability to skewer vain, bourgeois white womanhood when she, as one of two actresses hired to play the shooter’s victims, insists she’s not quite old enough to play the mother of Miriam—which, ironically, is exactly what May was in the previous hospital scene. Mary drawls, “The nurses will have to suspend their disbelief,” eliciting satisfied hoots from the audience. In Drury’s version of the play-within-a-play device, the drill multiplies the levels of artifice, the scene growing ever more absurd. Mary repeatedly slaps the fake belly that Miriam straps on beneath her polyester maxi dress, the hollow thumps resounding. Prosthetic wounds are glued onto all by a still-silent Duppy Mary, her inky Victorian dress here suggesting a stagehand’s all-black uniform. Once the trauma rehearsal begins, May takes comically giant steps, extending her arm in mock terror and shrieking—a perfect example of “bad acting.” Mamie, a nurse for whom this training is intended, steps in to “deliver” Miriam’s baby, but when she draws her hands out from between Miriam’s legs, there’s blood. In unison (that is, on cue), everyone screams.

Dirt falls from above, followed by bodies. A catchy, synthetic Afrobeat track blares, punctuated by an obnoxious, stuttering air horn like that of a self-satisfied DJ. Jiyoun Chang, the lighting designer, throws lurid magenta and ultraviolet over the chaos. Bernstine dances incandescently, her gaze focused somewhere in the middle distance, while the other actresses, howling maniacally, sabotage the set; they knock over plants, smear more fake blood on the walls. Mannequins, stand-ins for British soldiers felled in Crimea, are strewn about the stage, their stuffed limbs splayed impossibly. These bug-eyed, flaccid, useless men—the first, and only, to appear in the show—are, as the commotion settles, nonetheless tended to and prayed over by Mary and her assistant (Beans), as well as by Florence Nightingale (Taylor) and hers (Hugot and Mendes). Satisfyingly, the women empty the corpses’ pockets and check their teeth for gold fillings. As the imperious Nightingale, Taylor trills in an English accent; her voice, along with Mendes’s and Hugot’s throatier brogues, is juxtaposed with Bernstine’s and Beans’s exceptional command of patois. It occurred to me that British accents, for some, still connote “serious theater,” while patois is heard less frequently on American stages. I wondered to whom which pronunciations are intelligible—and what might be lost in transmission.

Yet I want to refuse any notion that this is a play “about” race, since the preposition wrongly suggests a perspective oriented from the outside, when white supremacy suffuses everything. Drury writes inside this distinction: Her 2012 breakout, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, features a theater group attempting to make a play “about” the titular genocide until its process descends into hideous violence. Fairview (2018) wryly mobilizes repetition to skewer white expectations of represented blackness. Complex and destabilizing, Drury’s writing careens but manages never to confuse. Ferrying between the inadequacy and the opulence of theatrical representation, an undercurrent of tender, fierce attention carries her audiences to shore.

In the second act, one marvels at the virtuosity of the play’s recursive structure. No longer adhering to any character “track,” if there ever was one, Beans, Hugot, Kandel, Mendes, and Taylor reprise lines from the previous scenes, which are hurled—almost spit—at Bernstine. Each snarling comment lands differently than its first iteration, and the cacophony of voices suggests they are all from a shared molten core: a person yowling with need; railing against any available substitute; mourning, however unconsciously, the parenting she wanted and didn’t get.

On whom is the burden of repair placed? Duppy Mary—until now mostly taciturn, stalking the stage’s periphery—unleashes a scorching tirade about centuries of white terror. A vivid counterpoint to the rhetorical control of Mary’s opening salvo, Duppy Mary’s rapid-fire outburst quivers with ungovernable rage. Whereas Seacole cherishes her self-determination, her individuality, her capacity to transcend circumstance, Duppy Mary insists on the omnipotence of structural forces: specifically, what black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers has called the “human sequence written in blood” that formed the order of the New World. “It’s filth—it’s in the filth, that’s where the mothering is,” she roars, shaking with the fact of it.

Marys Seacole presents a gnarled, enduring history of reproductive labor—some waged, some unwaged—as it is unevenly distributed among white and black women. Toward the end, the cast forms a chorus; in unison, they announce themselves as Mary Seacole (thus the plural of Drury’s title). Theater is inevitably tangled in dynamics of representation and identification; Drury’s writing and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s superlative direction, wrangle “character” from the outside in, attending to these conditions not as givens but as problems to be tested. That all six women incant her name feels dangerous, risking a universal notion of womanhood in which difference is elided. But the play concludes with the black women’s arms wrapped around the white women’s bodies. Center stage, May weeps into Mary’s polka-dot collar. A few tears fall from Mary’s face before she steels her resolve and—what else could she do?—chokes them back. 

Catherine Damman is an art historian and critic.