It’s hard to imagine a play more timely than “Marys Seacole,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s astonishing new show, which is having its regional premiere at the Mosaic Theater Company. Opening close to Mother’s Day and directed by Eric Ruffin, the show examines the collision of caretaking and colonization, the meaning of motherhood, while also treating the realities of contagious disease and war. It’s a breathtaking, unmissable show.
It’s a breathtaking, unmissable show.
Mary Seacole herself opens the story, surrounded by a chorus of other women. We learn quickly that this will not be a straightforward biography, and her chorus challenges the audience, “If you don’t know who she is, look her the f— up!”
Who she is, as she tells us, is “a Creole woman, from a good Scotch family,” born in Kingston, Jamaica. Learning medical skills at a young age, she says she “gave herself power,” including the power to open her own medical establishment, and eventually travel to nurse soldiers in the Crimean War.
Drury’s script draws details and passages from Mary Seacole’s own autobiography, the “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands,” and Mary herself appears to read from it. The story is not only Mrs. Seacole’s, as we learn when the character is handed a Bluetooth at the end of her introduction. From there, we are launched between the telling of her 19th century life, and scenes of caretaking from the present day.
Drury’s juxtaposition of 19th and 21st centuries incisively picks apart motherhood, racism, and the agony of caregiving, for a start. An early scene, set in a modern day nursing home, finds a white woman berating the black nurse taking care of her sick mother for what she sees as neglect, then immediately retreating when confronted by the bodily realities of illness. The following scene showcases Mary Seacole’s 19th century hotel/clinic, catering largely to White women patients, and finds Seacole cradling the unconscious body of a young White mother.
In scene after scene, Black women care, and mostly White women are cared for. Black women are patient, but are almost never the patient.
The criss-crossing through time is managed by a fine cast. Kim Bey as the titular Mary ably navigates the challenges of the role, especially when she must switch between characters instantaneously, momentarily stepping off the stage as a modern day woman, and back into a reverie where she is again Mary Seacole. The supporting actors’ performances help to connect scenes through consistent characterization. Amanda Morris Hunt brings a nicely sardonic edge to her caregiving characters, past or present.
Emily Lotz’s minimal set allows for instant time shifts, and Mona Kasra’s graphic projections locate us in time and place. Each section’s title is displayed, sometimes seeming to call attention to the show as a story (“The Nannies”) or as a play (“Act II”).
Drury’s script feels rhythmic, repeating lines of dialogue and ideas in different scenes, including the refrain, “I see you/ Do you see me.” The theme is made manifest by the appearance of Florence Nightingale herself, the nurse who made her reputation in the Crimean War. She had no trouble being seen, and Salman Rushdie himself in The Satanic Verses, laments the lack of recognition for Seacole’s own contributions, saying, “but, being dark, [Seacole] could scarce be seen for the flame of Florence’s candle.”
But that invisibility, the show argues, as Seacole did herself in “Wonderful Adventures,” is at least partly due to Nightingale (here played perfectly by Tonya Beckmam), who rejected Seacole’s offer to lend her nursing skills to the war, and dismisses her in a cut-glass accent when they meet. Drury’s play isn’t interested in providing easy answers, but instead makes invisible people, and violence, visible.
Runtime: Approximately one hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Mild adult language.
“Marys Seacole” runs through May 29, 2022 at Mosaic Theater Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center. 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information and tickets, please click here. For Covid safety protocols, please click here.