In the timely Steppenwolf curiosity ‘Miz Martha,’ enslaved people confront Washington’s widow
The obstinacy of human nature is what’s really on trial in James Ijames’ dark comedy.
“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” is a most curious, outlandish, vicious and uproarious affair at the Steppenwolf Theater. In James Ijames’ latest dark comedy missive, he puts the “Mother of America” on trial with impeccable timing — opening just as news of Queen Elizabeth’s death reverberates around the world. If you found yourself overcome with poignant emotion at the demise of Her Majesty, you might find this play … er … challenging. If, however, you found yourself rooting for the demise of the British Empire and joining the ranks of Black and Irish Twitter in recalling its history of racism and colonialism, , well then, this is the play for you!
Amidst a pastoral field of cotton, Martha Washington languishes in her sickbed, surrounded by enslaved people who know that her recently deceased husband George left a clause in his will that they were to be freed upon her death. In her fever dream, Martha begins to realize that they might desire to hasten that untimely event. (This fear is historically accurate and was outlined in a letter written by Abigail Adams.) Though Martha did ultimately free her husband’s slaves, she was by no stretch of the imagination an abolitionist, nor did she ultimately free or try to free her own slaves or the ones owned by her family trust.
It turns out that money can buy almost everything — except for a clean conscience — and that has remained true since before Martha Washington’s time until today. A recent article in the Guardian about billionaires seeking to save themselves from the apocalypse quoted them as wondering, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” Ijames luxuriates in the fears of the oppressor and the joy of schadenfreude in this stateside “Christmas Carol” set against the backdrop of chattel slavery.
When: Through Oct. 9
Where: Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago
Run time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Cindy Gold deftly plays a Martha cozily wrapped in a blanket of privilege so thick that she’s unable to reckon with her own sins. Most media about slavery tends to soft-pedal both the complicity of white women and the level of vitriol the oppressed felt about being denied freedom. But this play opens with her captives raucously celebrating the possibility that she might soon kick the bucket. One by one, each of the enslaved take their moment to speak their minds. Sydney Charles and Celeste M. Cooper play two maids named Priscilla and Doll with no love lost for their ailing mistress. They also have a delightfully hilarious cameo as two of America’s most beloved figures that is alone worth the price of admission.
Nikki Crawford plays Ann Dandridge, Martha’s chambermaid, whose bond should deservedly be deeper based on their shared heritage. Unfortunately in some families, blood counts for nothing more than pain, which makes for a brutal reckoning. Donovan Session is hilarious as the spirited Sucky Boy, whose lighthearted name belies a gut-wrenching anecdote. An outstanding Victor Musoni as William and Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Davy round out the cast, and fans of Clemons-Hopkins’ work as Marcus on the HBO Max show “Hacks” should not miss this opportunity to experience his considerable talents in person.
The structure of the play is freewheeling, starting out in a traditional manner, then devolving into a frenetic sketch show-like pace as the enslaved people repeatedly try (and fail) to drive Martha into a moral epiphany. Some segments are more successful than others (a game show portion less so, leaving the overall piece feeling a bit disjointed) and character arcs are mild to nonexistent.
At times the structure has a meta-message; in one scene the cast begins to dance and sing exuberantly and Martha finds herself swept up in the celebration. When the music stops abruptly and she’s confronted with an uncomfortable truth, she tunes out — a metaphor for how Blackness is only worthy of attention when entertaining.
As each person asks for their freedom, then cajoles, demands and threatens for it, it becomes clear that what Ijames has truly put on trial is the obstinacy of human nature. Who hasn’t at least once chosen to continue to do something wrong even when we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that we shouldn’t? It’s easy to separate ourselves from Miz Washington, but as we navigate a world facing fascism, racism, sexism and staggering inequality, where far too many are digging in their heels and refusing to evolve and grow — well, if we were to truly put our own conscience on trial, it’s likely we could find at least one issue where we are deluding ourselves into believing that we aren’t guilty.