Mary Seacole, though little known in the United States, was almost as celebrated in her time as Florence Nightingale, and for much the same reason – for nursing the sick and wounded during the Crimea War.
They did it separately. Mary Seacole applied several times to join Florence Nightingale’s nursing operation, but she was rejected each time, probably because of her race; she was the off-spring of a Scottish soldier and a Jamaican healer, and called herself Creole. So she went to the battlefield on her own, alone.
Mary Seacole was more than just a pioneering nurse. She was an entrepreneur, a hotelier, the author of an autobiography, a much admired independent woman in the Victorian age. That she was a woman of so many identities is probably not why playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury made the title of her play plural: “Marys Seacole.” In this challenging, disorienting, and powerful collage of a drama on stage at Lincoln Center’s experimental LCT3 Claire Tow Theater, Drury (best known for “Fairview”) seems to be using this one remarkable woman’s biography to try to say something larger – about race and gender; about what it takes, and what it takes out of you, to be a caregiver.
“Marys Seacole” begins with Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Mary Seacole addressing us directly in her Jamaican lilt about her life, presumably reciting by heart from Seacole’s 1857 autobiography, “Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands.” The daughter of a “doctress,” Mary tells us she wanted to be a healer from an early age, first practicing on her dolls — “whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it.” As she grew older “it was very natural that I should seek to extend my practice” – to dogs and cats, “those luckless brutes.” She grew up to take care of cholera victims in Jamaica. As she tells us her story, suddenly a statuesque woman – listed in the program as Duppy Mary (Karen Kandel) – sticks a bluetooth earpiece in her ear.
A few minutes later, the phone rings, and abruptly the scene changes to a modern-day nursing home. May (Lucy Taylor) tries to engage her bedridden mother Merry (Marceline Hugo) who does little more than groan, while May’s daughter Miriam (Ismendia Mendes) lounges nearby impatiently. May worries that her mother hasn’t eaten so goes to find “someone.”
That someone is Mary – again portrayed by Quincy Tyler Bernstine. She’s not Mary Seacole reincarnated, exactly; she is one of the current-day Mary Seacoles who function as caregivers. Race comes subtly into play here, because May and her family are white – as were most of Mary Seacole’s patients, certainly at the height of her career — and May, clearly anxious about her mother, acts in an imperious manner towards Mary.
Mary discovers that the patient Merry has defecated in bed, and so brings in Mamie (Gabby Beans) to help her clean up. May and Miriam skedaddle from the room. While Mary and Mamie efficiently go about the cleanup, the two talk back and forth in what seems idle chat – Mamie says she doesn’t want to have children; Mary asks how would she then keep a husband; this segues into a debate about what a man needs. This woman’s talk (again subtly) embeds thoughts of the role gender plays in caregiving. The only men in “Marys Seacole” are dead bodies (dummies but persuasive)
There are five more scenes in “Marys Seacole,” which go back and forth in time and place, with the six actresses sometimes portraying the same characters, sometimes different characters; sometimes it’s not clear whether they are the same or not. In one scene, “May” becomes an international aid worker negotiating on a cell phone with a “pharma guy” to get free vaccines. Although the character’s name is the same, certainly she’s not the same May as the mother in the nursing home who was so unnerved by her mother’s decline?
One of the last scenes is of nurses training in triage, with volunteers dressing up in fake wounds to help. The scene is grimly funny… until it turns terrifying.
“Marys Seacole” climaxes in a chaotic, almost-abstract montage that poetically samples lines of dialogue from previous scenes, and introduces new scenes from Mary Seacole’s past that reach for “Rosebud” revelation, though not as clearly.
What is the playwright trying to say? There are plenty of clues – maybe too many. “It’s filth – it’s in the filth – that’s where the mothering is,” Mary says near the end. But no one line can tidily sum up “Marys Seacole,” which is rich and messy. Such lack of tidiness in plot and point might inspire some audience confusion or impatience. But it worked for me. The production certainly helped, with effective stagecraft by director Lileana Blain-Cruz and her design team, and the extraordinary acting by all six cast members. Even when Marceline Hugo is just lying in bed semi-comatose, she’s brave and amazing, but this is followed by an impressively abrupt transition into a 19thcentury happily drunk hotel guest.
Bernstine, always a wonderful actress, here offers shades of differences for her various Marys, but keeps a core for all of them that lets us know not just how complicated and heroic Mary Seacole was, but how much she shares with every Mary who has followed.
Lincoln Center LCT3
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Sets by Mariana Sanchez, costumes by Kaye Voyce. lighting by Jiyoun Chang, sound by Palmer Hefferan,
Stage manager: Charles M. Turner III
Cast: Gabby Beans, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Marceline Hugot, Karen Kandel, Ismenia Mendes
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Marys Seacole is scheduled to run through March 24, 2019
Extended to April 7