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Marys Seacole

Jackie Sibblies Drury
Lincoln Center Theater
Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, New York

Quincy Tyler Bernstine Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Karen Kandel, Ismenia Mendes and Quincy Tyler Bernstine Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Gabby Beans, Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Lucy Taylor Credit: Julieta Cervantes

This 90-minute production opened in 2019 under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater / LCT3, the theatre’s more experimental small-scale venture. It comes from the pen of Jackie Sibblies Drury, who made quite a stir at the Young Vic in happier days with Pulitzer Prize-winner Fairview.

Marys Seacole, which features an all-female cast, riffs around the life of an extraordinary lady Mary Seacole (1805–1881), described by director Lileana Blain-Cruz in a brief introduction as an “adventurer, entrepreneur and inventor of modern nursing”.

To British eyes, she will be regarded as a black, transatlantic version of Lucy Taylor’s jealously competitive Florence Nightingale, who also “fought” for humanity in the Crimean War but comes across as unsympathetic to her Jamaican counterpart.

As the compelling Quincy Tyler Bernstine in the title role explains, this feisty, Jamaican-born character was a Creole with a Scottish soldier father, hence the bagpipes as the opening credits roll. What starts out as a run-of-the-mill monologue, admittedly adorned by a handful of postmodern touches, unexpectedly dissolves into a family scene.

Set in a 21st-century American care facility employing contemporary nurse Mary, this features three generations of women from the same family, a practically catatonic grandmother, an angry mother and stroppy teen. The third setting is Mary’s hotel in Kingston, where she provided succour (and rum) to colonials as cholera ran wild.

Continuing the travels through time and space, the next stopping-off point is a children’s playground today, where a couple of Jamaican mothers are confronted by Ismenia Mendes, splendidly playing an insensitive yuppie. By this point, a number of themes have begun to develop, generally around the theme of caring in several senses of that word.

Issues of gender and race begin to impinge, along with a tangential consideration of what it means to care, both in a modern professional sense and in the more traditional way, as exemplified by the feelings that any mother should have for her children or younger generations for the matriarch of their family.

While much of this play is serious, as a prelude to Crimean carnage, an element of dark humour is injected in a hilarious scene during which a nurse played by Gabby Beans undergoes extreme triage training.

A very brief act 2 comprises the protagonist’s nightmare, somewhat randomly collecting together a series of images and allusions from earlier in the piece to bring the evening to an appropriately unsettling conclusion to a varied but powerful drama, from which the original Mary emerges a little battered but triumphantly indomitable.

Mary Seacole is the third play in a season entitled “Private Reels”, which LCT is making available without charge via Broadway on Demand.

To do so, it is using film that was never intended for broadcast but is of a perfectly acceptable quality, though the audio could be a little clearer and will provide great entertainment for those of us yearning for high quality theatre and unable to see it in real life.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher