The life of Mary Seacole, ‘the black Florence Nightingale’, is explored in a new play. The playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and director Nadia Latif talk to Jade Cuttle of The Times of London.
‘Mary Seacole stands before us. If you don’t know who she is, well, look her the f*** up.” So begins Marys Seacole (we’ll get to the “Marys” of the title later), an experimental bio-drama by the Pulitzer prizewinning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, opening this week at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It explores the inspiring life of Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican who defied war, prejudice and the British government by self-funding a trip to Crimea, now part of Ukraine, to set up a “British Hotel” and care for soldiers on the battlefront.
Seacole — born Mary Jane Grant in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1805 — learnt herbal remedies from her mother and was an alarmingly keen student. “Whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it,” she wrote in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands. It wasn’t just dolls: Seacole practised on dogs, cats and herself as a young child, before moving on to the cholera and yellow fever victims of Kingston, Panama and Crimea. Hailed as “the black Florence Nightingale”, she was voted the greatest black Briton in 2004. But she wasn’t always so esteemed.
On October 12, 1854, the Times Constantinople correspondent, Thomas Chenery, called for medical aid after the battle of Alma: “We are told of patients lying for hours, and even days, and making desperate attempts to catch the surgeon in his flying visits from ward to ward. There are no nurses at Scutari [. . . ] there is not even linen and lint to bind wounds [. . . ] The fever patients and the wounded suffer a dreadful thirst.”
Shortly after, a convoy of nurses led by Nightingale was sent to Crimea. Seacole travelled to England and asked the British War Office if she could join, but was refused — some say because of her race — despite her track record of saving cholera patients with a curious mix of mercury chloride and mustard. Unfazed, she funded her own trip to Crimea and established the British Hotel in 1855 near Balaclava; “the softest, cleanest establishment”, according to Drury’s script, “in this nasty brutal pointless war”.
Marys Seacole premiered at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York in 2019. Drury, who is from New Jersey, came up with the idea while scrolling through Instagram where she spotted the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. She noticed the museum had a small section devoted to Seacole and felt she deserved her own stage.
“I went onto Amazon and was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many books about her!’ ” Drury tells me between rehearsals at the Donmar Warehouse. “I ordered them all but when they came, they were children’s books on cardboard pages.” In other words, a flimsy homage to “Mother Seacole”, as she was known to the British soldiers she nursed in Crimea, sometimes while under fire. The literature on Nightingale, by contrast, is endless.
The play is directed by Nadia Latif, who also directed Drury’s Pulitzer prizewinner Fairview, about a black middle-class family, at the Young Vic in 2019. “My mind boggles that this woman crossed the planet for a war [of which] she had no horse in the race,” Latif says. “It blows my mind. Imagine riding towards the explosion, not away. But history doesn’t like to remember women, especially black women.”
Drury not only wanted to write about Seacole but also about those who care for others today. “In the Crimean War you were there to be a body and fight other bodies — you weren’t cared for by your government. In some ways, even though now we have military rations, fancier uniforms and technology, outside of the fighting that still feels to be the case,” Drury adds. “Caring is important work, it has to be done eventually by someone. But it’s not always the most respected work in our society, so I wanted to cheer for it.”
Latif points to the weekly applause for NHS staff working on the Covid-19 front line during lockdown. “We did performative things during the pandemic, like go outside and clap, but never really thought about their lives,” she says. “I feel like this play is lifting the curtain slightly; not on NHS workers but on what it costs to give you care, every day. How often do we think about all the invisible hands? From the bus driver to the person who gets up at 4am to collect the bins.
“Society, it’s like the organs of the body, we all have to work together. If one gets sick, the others are f***ed. It’s a play about that: how you make up a society where we’re all totally dependent on each other, and when one group of people tends to be at the bottom, who are those people?”
Kayla Meikle, from London, plays Mary, having previously appeared in Small Axe (Education) as Mrs Howard and as a nurse in Ricky Gervais’s After Life. “Mary is my heroine,” Meikle says. “We only spent one lesson on her in primary school but I became obsessed. I actually came into the audition with a list of other actresses I thought could play this role — I was terrified because I felt such a connection.”
It’s not just about black history, though. “I play about four different versions of Mary,” Meikle says. “All the names in the play, they’re diminutives or sound like Mary too: Mamie, Mary, Miriam, Merry, May . . . ” That’s why the drama is called Marys Seacole, to represent all “the different Mary Seacoles that exist today, from the people who look after our kids to the nurses, mothers and cleaners. I’m making a playlist at the moment called ‘I Am Every Woman’. Every woman is Mary. Everyone has a Mary Seacole in their life.”
The plays asks the question, how many of us could be so selfless? “If you look at the news today, would you pack up your suitcase with a load of bandages and surgical spirit and buy a one-way ticket to Mariupol?” asks Olivia Williams. She plays May, whose mother is being cared for by Mary in a nursing home. “That’s what she did. She got some clothes, food and, God knows how, travelled across the whole of Europe and set up a compound to treat people. She’s much more like Mother Courage than Florence Nightingale.”
Despite the backdrop of war and prejudice — at one point in the play Mary says, “I have often heard the term ‘lazy Creole’ applied to my country’s people. But I am sure I do not know what it is to be indolent” — there are also jokes, humour and joy. The British-Jamaican nurse routinely cannonballs into scenes with infectious goodwill, confidence and homemade concoctions, from crushed sarsaparilla with fever grass, lime and honey to more enticing tipples. “She treated cholera with rum,” Williams says, “so maybe that’s why she was more popular than Florence — Florence was teetotal.”
When Seacole returned to England in 1857 she was destitute and declared bankrupt. The Times war correspondent William H Russell wrote of her at the time: “I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” In July of that year 80,000 people came to support a four-day fundraising gala that was held to raise money for her on the banks of the Thames, so far-reaching was her impact. She published her autobiography later that year.
Seacole died in London in 1881, aged 76, and was largely forgotten until a group of nurses from the Caribbean visited her grave in Kensal Green, northwest London, 100 years later and inspired the local MP, Clive Soley, to launch a campaign for a statue. It was unveiled in 2016, in the gardens of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, the UK’s first statue in honour of a named black woman. Marys Seacole taps into her legacy — one that goes beyond paintings and statues — with its moving closing line: “If my sons wanted help, I would go to the Crimea. And go I did, as all the world knows.” Not all the world does, but that’s what this play hopes to change.
Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, to June 4, donmarwarehouse.com