Steppenwolf’s season opener THE MOST SPECTACULARLY LAMENTABLE TRIAL OF MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON is a wild fever dream of a play. James Ijames’s play asks audiences to grapple with the question of who is truly free in America and at what cost do we perpetuate cycles of oppression and abuse, even though they may fall under the guise of forward movement.
In MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON, the enslaved people in the Washington household gather at Martha Washington’s bedside as she suffers from illness in her final days. President George Washington’s will provisions that they will be freed upon her death—which means that the characters (aside from Martha herself) await that moment with a sense of near jubilation and expectation.
MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON has no clear character arcs or narrative storytelling. Instead, Ijames has constructed the play as a series of vignettes from Martha’s illness-ridden dreams. While not all of the scenes cohere, the recurring thread is that Martha remains in complete ignorance of her privilege and her role in perpetuating oppression. This is perhaps most evident in her relationship with Ann Dandridge , who was not just enslaved by the Washington family but was, in fact, Martha’s half sister. At a critical moment, Martha asserts that she’s been good to Ann, hasn’t she? Ann responds with silence.
The emotional notes in MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON swing from darkly humorous to darkly contemplative. The play also draws on a wide range of presentational styles, from straightforward drama to vaudeville to pageantry to modern-day game shows. It’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” type of storytelling, which invariably means that some scenes are more successful than others. I was intrigued to see what would come next, but about an hour into the play, I did find my attention somewhat waning.
Director Whitney White’s production, though, gamely embraces the various styles that Ijames employs in the text to put forth his key themes. Clint Ramos’s sleek set design allows for quick scene changes and some visual surprises; the stage is flanked by cotton plants, a stark reminder of the grueling menial labor that the enslaved went through at the hands of the Washington family. Izumi Inaba’s costume designs embody different styles, from the quotidien to the intentionally and necessarily outrageous (and, at certain moments, there’s a surprising amount of glitter).
The cast turns in stellar performances, enthusiastically embracing the variation in styles and sticking to the integrity of each moment. Though not all the scenes played equally well for me, I was immensely impressed with how all of the actors handled the material. In the title role, Cindy Gold presents Martha as thoroughly, woefully ignorant and blind to her privilege. Gold lends the character some empathy, and she plays Martha’s dazed and confused moments delightfully. Nikki Crawford has a grounded and graceful energy as Ann Dandridge; her resistance to Martha is light-handed, but she makes clear the displeasure that lies beneath the surface and her unwillingness to play along with Martha’s narrative that she’s been treated well. Sydney Charles and Celeste M. Cooper are a dynamic duo as Priscilla and Doll, often seen at Martha’s side. Charles and Cooper also take on a few different roles throughout the play and embrace them all. Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Donovan Session also have great rapport as Davy and Sucky Boy, and they’re particularly compelling in their vaudeville-inspired, highly physical moments. Victor Musoni rounds out the cast as Ann’s son William; Musoni has a sweet stage presence, which serves as a contrast to Martha’s blind ignorance.
MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON is a genre-blending play with elements of dark humor and deep tragedy, as it asks audiences to reckon with the foundational values upon which America was built. It’s clear for all the characters in the play BUT Martha that the United States is certainly not the “land of the free, home of the brave.” Ijames presents a pointed reimagining of this moment in history, and the parallels it draws to the present moment are not optimistic. While stylistically I’m not sure that all the scenes and wild genre swings work, MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON certainly gives audiences plenty to chew on while watching.
THE MOST SPECTACULARLY LAMENTABLE TRIAL OF MIZ MARTHA WASHINGTON runs through October 9, 2022 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $20-$96. Visit Steppenwolf.org.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Originally published on Broadwayworld.com