Thursday, February 14, 2019

There's Something About Marys

Last night, I saw Jackie Sibblies Drury's new play Marys Seacole, which is inspired by the life of the British-Jamaican world traveler who helped wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

Presumably, the play is called "Marys" because each of the six performers has a variation of the name Mary, and each seems to represent an aspect of the famous Mary Seacole. The leading actor, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, most closely represents Seacole, and is listed in the program as "Mary." Karen Kandel, who appears as Seacole's mother among other characters, is listed as "Duppy Mary." Gabby Beans, whose multiple characters assist Seacole in various ways, is listed as "Mamie." Other actors are listed as "May," "Merry," and "Miriam."

Born Mary Jane Grant, the historical Mary Seacole learned traditional medicine in Jamaica and referred to herself as a "doctoress." She travelled to Britain, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti before she married Edwin Seacole in 1836. Eight years later, he died, and after a period of grief, she rededicated herself to healing others. She travelled to Panama and tended to victims of a cholera epidemic, avoiding opium as a treatment and generally prescribing herbal remedies. Later, when the Crimean War broke out, she offered her services, but the British War Department declined.

Undaunted, Seacole went to the Crimea anyway, set up a hotel, met with Florence Nightingale, and provided aid and comfort to British soldiers. The position she had of being a healer, but neither a doctor nor a nurse exactly, might have inspired Drury to use Seacole as a representative of the many heathcare workers in the U.S. today who have various levels of training and provide necessary services but don't enjoy the status (or salaries) of certified doctors and nurses. Consequently, the play travels back and forth between Mary Seacole in the 19th century and a character named Mary in the 21st century who is an immigrant from Jamaica working in a nursing home in the U.S.

The concept provides a lot of humor and allows Drury to meditate on caregiving in America today at the same time she is exploring the life of Seacole. Personally, I was more interested in learning about the historical Seacole, but Drury's present-day characters also sparkle with life (even when they are dying) and rarely fail to entertain. The play is performed without an intermission, but it is divided into two acts, during the latter of which the two realities become increasingly blurred. Toward the end, the play takes another turn, when Mary has a powerful confrontation with her mother that brings up a host of issues.

Marys Seacole is playing at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theatre until March 24th. If you're interested in seeing it, check out the show's website.