Unearthing the obscure legend of an extraordinary real-life 19th-century heroine, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s reflective drama Marys Seacole (★★☆☆☆) introduces its audience to many Marys across the ages.
“Do you know how many women I am?” muses a member of the chorus encircling Mary Seacole as the famed British-Jamaican nurse, businesswoman, and humanitarian starts to narrate her amazing life story.
Through Seacole’s saga, Drury — awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her provocative comedy Fairview — explores history, race, class, and womanhood in Seacole’s lifetime, and in the present-day existence of a caregiver who bears her complicated legacy. The writer might also be investigating aspects of her own history as a descendant of Jamaican immigrants.
Director Eric Ruffin’s production carries forth Drury’s expansive, dreamlike narrative confidently, if stiffly at times. The all-female cast, anchored by Kim Bey’s dynamic performance as Mary Seacole, clicks best in those scenes grounded in the reality of tending to the sick and wounded, whether on the battlefield, or in a nursing home.
The play’s poetic passages, often featuring spiritual visitations from Seacole forebear Duppy Mary (a suitably ominous Tina Fabrique), register as more ponderous than profound. Ruffin’s staging, with figures wafting in and out from all directions around the central platform of scenic designer Emily Lotz’s harmonious set, transmits a sense of Mary and her dramatic chorus (Amanda Morris Hunt, Claire Schoonover, Megan Graves, and Tonya Beckman) invoking those spirits. But the fragments of fanciful visions, history, flashbacks, and family drama have a hard time cohering into a cogent whole.
The real Mary Seacole, born Creole of Scottish ancestry, covered her whole wild and wondrous life in her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, published in 1857.
She traveled the world, built businesses, healed the sick. And the play honors her remarkable journey from Kingston nurse to proprietor of her own hotel for British soldiers during the Crimean War, while pointedly connecting Seacole to the women who toil as caregivers today.
A scene set in a modern-day nursing home, and relayed with impressive nuance and sensitivity by Bey and Claire Schoonover, as an incontinent patient, drives home Seacole’s symbolic kinship to a long line of Black women tasked with wiping the butts of white ladies.
It’s a powerful, ephemeral moment of clarity, too seldom matched elsewhere in this patchwork chronicle of an adventurer who deserves to be remembered.
Marys Seacole runs through May 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $50 to $68, with $20 tickets available for Thursday matinees. Call 202-399-7993, ext. 2 or visit www.mosaictheater.org.
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