The playwright has found an ideal protagonist in her latest work, “Marys Seacole,” which seamlessly blends naturalistic representation and conceptual daring.
A review by Sarah Larson for The New Yorker.
“Marys Seacole,” the revelatory new drama by Jackie Sibblies Drury (at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow), revolves around the life of its namesake, the nineteenth-century Scottish-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman Mary Seacole, who was determined to live a life of adventure, and did—as evidenced in her 1857 autobiography, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.” The play takes us to some of those lands—among them, colonial Jamaica and a Crimean War battlefield—and to the present-day United States, its six actors shifting roles as they travel. In her earlier work, Drury, who is thirty-seven, has taken on such subjects as zombies, genocide, and surveillance, and in Seacole she’s found an ideal protagonist: a historical marvel who resists hagiography, because she’s so tough and wry. Under the inspired direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, the play achieves something rare: a seamless blend of naturalistic representation and conceptual daring, in which each element enhances and elevates the other. Drury’s art conveys her ideas as powerfully as a hurricane.
As the play begins, the set, designed by Mariana Sanchez, grounds us in the present. There’s a modern hospital bed, a reception desk, and a waiting area with a vast expanse of oppressively cheerful salmon-pink tile. Mary Seacole (the outstanding Quincy Tyler Bernstine), wearing an elaborate Victorian gown (the eye-popping costumes are by Kate Voyce), steps up onto a low table and greets us with selected chapter titles from her book. “Act One: A story of Mrs. Mary Seacole: My Birth and Parentage, My Early Tastes and Predilections, Struggles for Life, the Cholera in Jamaica, My Reception at the Independent Hotel, Success of the Yellow Doctress,” she says. “Also, General Observations on Life in the Americas.” (Seacole’s writing is as entertaining as Drury’s.) Bernstine’s Mary is proud, amusing, self-aware, and unsentimental—“droll,” the script says—with authoritative hand gestures and a Jamaican accent. She identifies herself as Creole—“I have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins”—and industrious. Mary’s mother, Duppy Mary (the commanding Karen Kandel, who glides regally onstage), operated a boarding house in Kingston and was, “like very many of the Jamaican women, an admirable doctress”; young Mary aspired to be a doctress, too. “Whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it,” she says. Before the next scene, Mary changes into her contemporary incarnation—a Jamaican-immigrant nurse in the United States—shedding her dress to reveal an exuberantly ugly nursing uniform: purple pants, printed top.
The play’s characters, though named in the script, are mostly unnamed within the action of the play; their anonymity makes us feel like voyeurs, spying on strangers who are both a little alien and damningly familiar. At a nursing home, May (Lucy Taylor), a brittle middle-class white woman, hovers over her barely verbal elderly mother, Merry (Marceline Hugot), while her adolescent daughter, Miriam (Ismenia Mendes), sprawls sullenly in a chair, looking at her phone. May is holding up a photo album, like a parent reading to a child. “This is you,” she says to Merry, who moans occasionally. “God, you were what, twenty? Look how pretty you were.” May points to another picture, of herself: “Mom, do you see me?” It’s a painfully recognizable scene, tinged with narcissism—the visit to a fading relative that plays as an awkward social call, with the elder in the role of inept participant. When Mary enters the room, May becomes a self-righteous unhappy customer, complaining about her mother’s care, saying that nursing isn’t “rocket science.” Then Merry noisily shits herself, and suddenly it’s time to leave.
The contrast between that encounter and what follows, in which Mary and her co-worker Mamie (Gabby Beans) clean Merry, care for her, and talk to her, is stunning. (Modern-day Mary, throughout, has elements of Mary Seacole, who sometimes “comes alive” in her, as the script puts it.) Here, Mary is at once stern, direct, and consoling, communicating in ways that Merry can understand. When Merry tries to slap her, Mary holds her arms still and looks fiercely into her eyes, saying that she knows she’s embarrassed, but, if she slaps Mary, Mary will slap her right back and leave her in her own filth. “Me can see you Mama,” she says. “And you can see me. And we both are a woman who deserve respect.” She and Mamie work efficiently, having an in-depth conversation as they briskly deal with adult diapers, change the sheets, and get Merry to the shower. They’re unfazed, in part because they have to be; the white women are fazed, in part because they can be. All this will resonate, assuredly, with every person in the audience.
Subsequent scenes hop through history with a similar observational acuity. Duppy Mary’s Kingston hotel, Mary tells us, “offered care and comfort to those English people who found their constitutions ill-suited to the atmosphere of our island”—including a hysterical young white woman (Mendes, at a wearying fever pitch), who enters screaming. In a scene set at a playground that could be in New York, that hysterical woman returns, in contemporary form. Here, Mary and Mamie are immigrant nannies, admiring pictures of their own children in Jamaica while watching their charges play. At one point, Mamie speaks movingly about having been afraid to bathe an old white lady in her care. Her mother, she says, had warned her not to look the lady in the eyes while bathing her, always to call her “Miss,” instead of using her name, and to touch her only with a cloth, never with her hand. “Me never feel so dirty as when me have fe bathe her,” Mamie says. Enter Miriam, now a young mother with an expensive stroller, who’s desperate to connect, nearly weeping from fatigue and loneliness—and Mamie and Mary have to decide whether to deal with this high-strung white stranger’s emotional needs. Drury conveys the interaction with some humor. Mary ignores Miriam and plays World of Warcraft on her phone; Mamie, grudgingly engaging with her, touches Mary’s thigh in exasperation as Miriam gratefully rhapsodizes about Montego Bay and reggae. In response, Mary makes a subtle “Oh, please—you’re on your own” gesture, and it’s delicious.
It didn’t cross my mind until Act II, when male soldier mannequins drop from the ceiling during a Crimean War scene, that no men appear in this play. Nothing had seemed to be missing: I just got carried along in the play’s particular and convincing logic. By that point, Mary Seacole has gone to volunteer her services in Crimea, where she butts heads with Florence Nightingale; later comes a scene at a nursing school that portrays a surreal but credible active-shooter drill. All the pieces fit together—the travelling feels expansive, not diffuse—and, as Drury’s script journeys along, it draws connections between the caregiving dynamic and white fragility, imperiousness, and terrorism in America which startle us with the force of their truth. “People them scared of work in this country,” Duppy Mary says, late in the play. “And they don’t know it’s a fear them fear. Scared of work and scared of people and scared of parents and scared of children. But a scared them scared. Me too. I’m scared of every little thing in this country. Every little thing can have a bomb or a bullet inside it in this country. Fe true.” Whites are ruining the country for the black people who built it, she says: “Is we, we who deserve to inherit it from the misguided progeny that are eating away at the founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Meanwhile, the caregivers go on giving care. After a final, tender image of black women consoling white women, the play ends with Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O.” The song has never sounded so devastating.