The world premiere of “Behold, A Negress” at Everyman Theatre begins in a lavishly, yet tastefully furnished Parisian artist studio with dark-blue hardwood floors to kill for. The set, designed by Daniel Ettinger, is beautiful but not overpowering—a wonderful space for the actors to slip into and play. Lighting designer Aja Jackson artfully colors the back scrim in a way that highlights moments without drawing attention from them. Sound designer Hope Villanueva’s music, cheery and classical, cements a sense of history with lightness.
Marie (Hannah Kelly), a painter and daughter of a wealthy merchant/plantation owner, fidgets with a bird-like energy that matures as the play progresses. Meanwhile Madeleine (Jessica Natalie Smith), a former slave of the family and Marie’s confidant and lover, moves with a groundedness and sense of purpose that offers a counterpoint to Marie’s restlessness. Both actors take a palpable delight in their presence on stage.
Through the lens of social history, the play is an incredibly novel and exciting story…
The first third of the play is interwoven with a humor that borders on camp, especially in Kelly’s enjoyably exaggerated performance. Had the women pushed another ten percent in this direction, the highs and lows of the French Revolution might have been rendered riotously funny. As it is, they offer a gaggle of lines and reactions, buoyed by Smith’s commendable deadpan, that brought a smile to my face.
An early epistolary scene in which we move through the Reign of Terror into the Reign of Napoleon helped accelerate the pace of the play. The exchange of letters also revealed one of the first deep moments of romantic connection between the two characters, when they just stand and stare longingly at each other across the synecdochical expanse of the stage. This felt more moving, and more like love, than any of the flirtations and caresses that came earlier. Around this point in the play, the actors developed a playful comfort and familiarity with each others’ bodies that, while not particularly sensuous, was a delight to watch. This was on full display during a mid-show movement sequence, beautifully choreographed by Maria Simpkins, and set to what I believe was an orchestral version of Post-Malone’s Sunflower (excellent choice), that invoked a childlike sense of freedom and breathlessness.
This is also the point where the play and its protagonists began to develop their deeper purpose, to produce a work of art that can sufficiently illuminate the horrors of slavery to the French people, and thus stop Napoleon from reinstating bondage in the colonies. This creates further space for the writer, Jacqueline E. Lawton, to examine and contextualize feminism, abolitionism, racism and paternalism, and how all these themes intersected in late 18th/early 19th century France. Through the lens of social history, the play is an incredibly novel and exciting story, the likes of which I have not previously seen presented in an artistic context. As a theatrical production, the attempt is laudable with mixed success.
I’d like to point out, admiringly, a few elements of Tatyana Marie-Carlo’s direction. The characters’ stage business while alone fleshes out who they are very effectively (guess who anxiously sneaks biscuits, prays, and guzzles wine; guess who sings to herself and plays the piano). The servant girl, an assistant stage manager dressed in period clothing, expands the universe of the two-hander and moves props while not disrupting the world created by the play.
During the performances, I was especially struck when Marie is forced to contend with failing to protect a younger Madeleine and when Madeleine learns that Napoleon is planning on reinstating slavery— Smith’s quiet heartbreak is haunting and touching. Smith’s Madeleine is able to remain patient with Marie’s shortcomings (until she isn’t) while insisting on change in a way that feels nuanced and real. A poignant speech by Madeleine about internalized anti-blackness, as well as the ending, assures that the play doesn’t focus on Marie’s character development at Madeleine’s expense. Meanwhile, Kelly’s Marie harbors a consistent level of self-absorption that feels neither like a caricature nor particularly antagonistic (until it doesn’t)—refreshing for a deeply selfish character.
However, it was difficult to fully immerse in the play, partially as a result of the tonal uncertainty at the start and partially because the actors only sometimes seemed to slip into the internal lives of the characters. For example, Madeleine’s early monologue about finding moments of joy while enslaved didn’t feel like it had sufficient gravity. It was hard tell if this was a an issue with the delivery, script, direction, or a combination of the three. Additionally, it felt like the play routinely asked Madeleine to sacrifice in her relationship to Marie, most obviously in her initial refusal to be painted giving way as soon as an obstacle to Madeleine’s artistic success arose. It felt at odds with Madeleine’s generally steadfast and confident bearing to give up so much ground, or at least without a building sense of tension at this inequity.
While the play and the performances asked interesting questions and held your attention, it felt like an off night. I recommend seeing it for the thought provoking story and hope that future performances capture the audience in a way that this show has the potential to do.
Running time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Racist language, brief sexual language, discussions of sexual and racial violence.
“Behold, A Negress” runs in-person through February 27, 2022 at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. For more information and tickets, call 410.752.2208 or click here. For information on COVID protocols, please visit here. This show is also available for streaming and can be purchased here. Tickets must be purchased by February 27 and can be viewed any time until March 13, 2022.