There is more than one Mary Seacole to meet the eye in Marys Seacole - an extraordinary celebration of a play, currently playing Lincoln Center Theater's Claire Tow Theater. There is Mary Seacole (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a 19th century Jamaican - the daughter of a Scottish soldier and a Creole woman, who sailed through the world on a wind of adventure that would make most of us dizzy. There is Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel) who is a mother figure and an overseeing spirit. There is Mamie (Gabby Beans) an eternal sidekick through the centuries. There is May (Lucy Taylor) the iconic white woman who has a bold veneer and a constrained heart. There is Merry (Marceline Hugot) a woman of a certain age whose emotional door is always ajar. Finally there is Miriam (Ismenia Mendes) who can pass for self involved, but whose edges are raw.
These six Marys come together to weave a wild tapestry that shatters the normal ideas of story-telling. There is no beginning per se. There is only the place where Jackie Sibblies Drury opens the door to this narrative that has begun without us. As Mary, Bernstine sparkles. I have seen many of her performances, and with Mary she appears to have released new iterations of herself. This Mary begins as a Jamaican with a Scottish accent who conquers the world as a healer and an entrepreneur. Her most famous escapade had her caring for soldiers in the Crimean War - despite the fact that her services had been refused by Florence Nightingale.
Drury guides us back and forward in time, from the Crimean, to an old folks home in the present, to a hotel in Jamaica (1800's), to a playground, to a medical event staging. The movement is fluid, and once we get over the first transition we are in lockstep. All bets are off and we surrender to what is going on, what has been and the unknown that is around the corner. Like the playwright Charles Mee, Drury leaps like a gazelle from continent to continent, from century to century. She goes where her pen takes her and never looks back. Through it all is the constant element that Mary Seacole and Mamie, and Dubby live in a world that is parallel to the white people around them. They can see both worlds clearly, whereas the white people are oblivious to anything outside of their world. We, of course, see this every day (if we are looking) but it is rare that this contradiction of existences is laid out with such skill and grace.
Eventually the pressure that has been allowed to develop explodes into the Crimean War itself. Here is where the only men in the story appear - as bodies. The women are sucked into the vortex of war and healing, despair and insanity start to take over. So strong is the pull that these women come apart at the seams. Boundaries are blurred and barriers disintegrate. They surge and merge together until we see that they are ALL Marys. This is a brief shining moment. When the dust settles the white women once again turn to the black women for comfort and all is as it was.
Except it is not. Life has been turned inside out on this stage, and it will never go back into the barn again. This extraordinary cast, brilliantly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, delivers the goods that Drury created. It is a majestic piece of work that takes no prisoners. Pay attention or get left behind. This is the style of the play and the lasting echo that follows you out the door. Attention must be paid. Wakey wakey.
(Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
"Jackie Sibblies Drury has taken a shredder to the sacred Great Person biodrama and let the pieces fall like confetti. In Marys Seacole, her breathless and radiant new play, the title character is indeed just the sort of worthy soul who qualifies for an inspirational story of uplift."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The Jamaican accents here are very pronounced, and not everything was unintelligible to these ears. Suffice to say, the ensuing spectacle of two titanic actors ripping into each other makes riveting theater, like hearing a great opera duet even when you don’t know the language being sung."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"It's not for nothing that a lengthy biography of the titular subject of Jackie Sibblies Drury's new play is included in the program. Although her story is well known in Britain, the pioneering Jamaican-born 19th-century healer and caregiver, Mary Seacole, is largely unfamiliar to Americans. Sadly, that ignorance is unlikely to be rectified by this thematically ambitious, experimental work that squanders its fascinating central character by reducing her story to post-modern tropes. There are some powerful moments in Marys Seacole (the plural in the title obliquely alludes to how the real-life figure is a precursor to the many women of color who have followed in her footsteps), but they are too often buried in the theatrical cacophony."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter