When “I’m Every Woman” rings out triumphantly over Marys Seacole, an astonishing, history-exploding new play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, Whitney Houston has never sounded so apt. And not simply because every member of this remarkable six-woman cast walks around in the same pair of sensible pink sneakers.
The subject of Drury’s play, which opens off-Broadway tonight at Lincoln Center’s LCT3, is Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born healer, businesswoman, and author of an 1857 travel memoir. After Florence Nightingale refused her services, Seacole set up her own hotel to care for British soldiers during the Crimean War. Victorian Britain came to revere her, to the extent that it could a creole woman. “If you don’t know who she is,” Drury’s script reads, “look her the f**k up.”
Audiences will know a great deal more about her by the end of these electrifying 90 minutes. They’ll also be compelled to reckon, in ways both thrilling and primal, with mortality, motherhood, ancestral and colonial legacies, and no less than what it means to be any kind of woman.
Mary (a searing Quincy Tyler Bernstine) introduces herself from a modest pedestal, heaving off her shoulders the weight of untold histories to give it to us straight. “I am the only historian of myself and my accomplishments, and so I shall try to speak from my own experience, simply,” as she later puts it. Mary soon sheds her 19th-century finery to reveal present-day nurse’s scrubs, in which she’ll change the sheets of a dying woman who’s just shit the bed.
With one step off Mary’s pedestal, Drury traces an ancestral line between a woman renowned for tending to British sons and daughters to an immigrant service provider tasked with both emotional labor and dirty work no one else wants to do. In both centuries, Mary is serving white women (and men) who amount to equal part patron and succubus — furnishing her means to survive while siphoning off her human dignity. Ultimately it’s the same shit, different era.
Drury bends, suspends, and ultimately shatters conventions of time and space altogether, in order to tease out threads of inheritance systematically overlooked by the churn of western history. Somehow the play is also a total hoot. This is a spectacular feat, accomplished with a sharp sort of expressionism by director Lileana Blain-Cruz. A nurse’s station transforms into a rum-soaked bar at a convalescent resort on Jamaican shores. The glass partition to a waiting room also demarcates a liminal space of elegiac memories.
A maternal woman in Victorian black, referred to in the script as ‘Drury’ or spirit Mary, affixes Mary with a bluetooth earpiece when she steps into the present, a first puncture through time that lands with a laugh. Mary’s ancestral mother proceeds to haunt her with sporadic dropped phone calls. Yes, history, it seems, has Mary’s number on speed dial. It’s just the wry sort of gesture that makes Marys Seacole so exhilarating to watch, waiting to see what facet of the truth it’s about to reveal next.
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(photos: julieta cervantes)