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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.
The play, receiving its world premiere courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program, begins with Mary Seacole (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) introducing herself with the stiff posture and cadences of an animatronic figure at Disney’s Hall of Presidents. Speaking in a thick Jamaican accent, she tells us of her birth in Kingston and her mixed Creole/Irish heritage; how she was inspired to practice medicine by her mother, a doctor; that she opened her own hotel and treated foreign sufferers of a cholera epidemic; and had ambitions to travel overseas and minister to soldiers fighting in the Crimean War.
The scene then shifts to the present day, where a contemporary Mary works at a nursing home, alongside fellow Jamaican Mamie (Gabby Beans). Among the patients is a seriously ill elderly woman (Marceline Hugot) being visited by her loving daughter (Lucy Taylor) and sullen granddaughter (Ismenia Mendes), the latter of whom attempts to end the old woman’s suffering by pulling the plug.
When the infirm patient later shows up in 19th-century period costume and wig, it becomes fully apparent that the play is more intent on being a time-tripping phantasmagoria than a conventional historical drama. The action constantly shifts between the past, including scenes involving Mary’s mother, Duppy Mary (a compelling Karen Kandel), and the present. The contemporary episodes often have a farcical quality, including the patient’s daughter regaling an incredulous Mary and Mamie about her vacation at a luxurious Jamaican resort (“You are so lucky to be from there!” she exults) and an elaborate hospital rehearsal for a mass-shooting scenario that involves copious amounts of fake blood.
There’s also a frenzied Crimean War battle scene, featuring realistic mannequins as the corpses of male soldiers, and a cameo appearance by Florence Nightingale herself. The non-linear proceedings are occasionally enhanced by music, from Mary lip-synching to “I’m Every Woman” to the strains of “Day-O” heard in the background.
The playwright, who recently garnered acclaim for her similarly genre-bending, controversial Fairview, attempts to pack a lot into this intermissionless work’s 90 minutes. Too much so, in fact, leaving the audience struggling to connect the confusing narrative dots. Mary Seacole’s arresting story is too often left in the lurch, and the link between her and her modern-day successors isn’t as emotionally resonant as clearly intended. It doesn’t help that the heavy accents employed by the performers playing the Jamaican characters sometimes render the dialogue unintelligible.
The play is never boring, however, with director Lileana Blain-Cruz (Pipeline) delivering an extremely lively production, working with obviously limited means. The technical elements are first-rate, especially Kaye Voyce’s mixture of period and contemporary costume designs that are so crucial to the time-fractured narrative. And the performances by the six-woman ensemble, almost all of them playing multiple roles, could not be bettered, with Bernstine outstanding in the central role. There’s no shortage of ambition or talent on display in Marys Seacole. What’s missing is coherence.
Venue: Clare Tow Theater, New York
Cast: Gabby Beans, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Marceline Hugot, Karen Kandel, Ismenia Mendes, Lucy Taylor
Playwright: Jackie Sibblies Drury
Director: Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set designer: Mariana Sanchez
Costume designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting designer: Jiyoung Chang
Sound designer: Palmer Hefferan
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater
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