Jackie Sibblies Drury’s thoughtful drama that unearths the obscure legend of an extraordinary real-life 19th-century heroine Mary’s Seacole (★★☆☆☆) introduces his audience to many Marys over the centuries.
“Do you know how many women I am?” muses a member of the chorus, circling Mary Seacole as the famous British-Jamaican nurse, businesswoman and philanthropist begins to share her amazing life story.
Through Seacole’s saga, Drury – was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her provocative comedy fair view – examines history, race, class and femininity in Seacole’s lifetime and in the contemporary existence of a caretaker who carries her complicated legacy. The author may also examine aspects of her own history as a descendant of Jamaican immigrants.
Director Eric Ruffin’s production confidently, if at times stiffly, continues Drury’s sprawling, dreamlike narrative. The all-female cast, anchored by Kim Bey’s dynamic performance as Mary Seacole, is best suited to scenes based on the reality of caring for the sick and wounded, whether on the battlefield or in a nursing home.
The play’s poetic passages, which often feature spiritual visits from Seacole’s ancestor Duppy Mary (an appropriately ominous Tina Fabrique), are rated as ponderous rather than profound. Ruffin’s staging, with characters floating in and out from all directions around the central platform of set designer Emily Lotz’s harmonious set, conveys a sense of Mary and her dramatic chorus (Amanda Morris Hunt, Claire Schoonover, Megan Graves and Tonya Beckman), who call these spirits. But the fragments of imaginative visions, stories, flashbacks and family drama struggle to piece together a coherent whole.
The real Mary Seacole, a Creole by birth of Scottish descent, has described her whole wild and wondrous life in her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Landspublished in 1857.
She traveled the world, built businesses, healed the sick. And the play pays tribute to her remarkable journey from being a nurse in Kingston to owning her own hotel for British soldiers during the Crimean War, while purposefully connecting Seacole to the women who work as nurses today.
A scene set in a modern nursing home, rendered with impressive nuance and sensitivity by Bey and Claire Schoonover as an incontinent patient, Seacole’s symbolic kinship with a long line of black women whose job it is to wipe white ladies’ butts is revealed.
It’s a powerful, ephemeral moment of clarity too rarely equaled elsewhere in this patchwork chronicle of an adventurer who deserves to be remembered.
Mary’s Seacole runs through May 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets range from $50 to $68, with $20 available for Thursday matinees. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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