WASHINGTON, D.C. – Born in Jamaica to a Scottish seafaring father and Jamaican mother, Mary considered herself Creole but above all a daughter and defender of the British Empire. From a tradition of Jamaican nurses and caregivers, she was inspired by her mother a practitioner in the ancient healing arts of the Caribbean. Not commonly known is the extraordinary legacy of this Black female pioneer in the field of medicine. In a spellbinding tale, Pulitzer Prize and Obie-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has cast a fierce eye on Seacole’s evolution as an inspirational figure in the history of Jamaican nurses and their struggle to be accepted in an age when racism was normative.
As the central character, Mary opens by delivering her narrative center stage. Played by Kim Bey in a tour de force performance, Mary is joined by a revolving group of representational female figures whose personal stories – some contemporary, some from the past – dovetail seamlessly into the tale Drury weaves. These women sometimes appear as muses, sometimes they present like The Furies, but they are wholly crafted to be believable. It is an important story that Drury draws from, one that we have been deprived of for far too long.
Born in 19th century Jamaica during a plague, Mary studied nursing. Driven by a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a keen sense of adventure, young Mary “yearned for medical knowledge” and traveled to Crimea during the war to minister to the sick and dying as a tropical disease specialist. She was rebuffed initially, by Florence Nightingale herself, yet her ambition has her opening a hotel for White elites who stuck up their noses at her yet found they could not live without her kind and knowledgeable ministrations. As grim as those scenes of war are represented here, Drury finds a way to insert plenty of comedic relief. Especially hilarious is a scene wherein Mary offers shots of rum to the patrons of her fancy hotel claiming it will keep the cholera away. Drunkenness ensues.
Mary’s mother (Tina Fabrique) appears frequently as a phantom in elaborate Victorian dress urging Mary to respect the dark arts of traditional Jamaican healing. She is a specter from Mary’s past, a woman who abused Mary yet inspired her too. Other actors play a dizzying array of roles – each cleverly crafted and brilliantly performed. Mary’s daughter (Amanda Morris Hunt) also appears speaking in strong Jamaican patois, her performance is whip-smart. Another stellar performance is by Megan Graves playing a rebellious daughter anxiously awaiting her mother’s demise. In a later incarnation she plays a patient who throws herself on Mary’s not inconsiderable mercy. Drury is brilliant at creating multi-dimensional characters she imbues with both fire and ice.
Several dialects taught by Teisha Duncan and Jen Rabbitt Ring – from Irish and Scottish to Jamaican and British – are all quite effective in setting the mood for a production so cleverly devised, featuring a raised circular stage, a series of evocative video projections by Mona Kasra and enhanced with dramatic lighting by John D. Alexander.
In this haunting and compelling drama, Drury has gifted us with powerfully relatable and deeply vulnerable characters. Speaking on the importance of healthcare workers, Mosaic’s Managing Director Serge Seiden said, “It became more urgent for us to present this play because of COVID.”
Imaginatively directed by Eric Ruffin, it includes terrific performances by Tonya Beckman as May; Tina Fabrique as Duppy Mary; Megan Graves as Miriam; Amanda Morris Hunt as Mamie; and Claire Schoonover as Merry.
Scenic Design by Emily Lotz; Costume and Wig Design by Moyenda Kulemeka; Sound Design by Cresent Haynes; Dramaturg Teisha Duncan.
Through May 29th at The Atlas Performing Arts Center 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets and information visit www.MosaicTheater.org or call the box office at 202 399-7993 from Monday – Friday 11am – 5pm. For COVID protocols visit the website. For further study read the autobiographical “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands”.