Mary Seacole was a revolutionary, a Jamaican who dreamed of vaulting confines of race and class and make her mark as a “doctress” on the battlefields of the Crimean War.
Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury takes this arc, one of humble origins soaring to historic achievement, and turns it into a challenging spectacle on Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow stage.
True to its title, “Marys Seacole” offers its heroine in various personas, periods ands settings — some of them beyond the realms of time and space. If your taste requires a historical drama to proceed from origin to obstacle to triumph, you’re in for a big surprise.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz and her design team offer a banquet of styles here, which — despite an intermittent, frenzied hallucinatory momentum — render the desires and legacy of Seacole in crystals of dramatic context. We get the mind of a singular woman, the mayhem of caregiving on the battlefield, the snubs of supposed privilege, the endurance of heartache of maternal bonds. And, in near-documentary detail, the realities of contemporary health care, straight from the bedside.
That list is by no means comprehensive. “Marys Seacole” rambles headlong through a world all its own. The play begins with Mary herself on a literal soapbox, and her lengthy, detailed and quirky monologue then kicks off an avalanche of divergent scenes, and bold leaps through time and identity.
The cast of six women tackle this difficult marriage with fierce energy, one appropriate to the long road of Seacole’s journey. From her roots as a Creole daughter of a Scot army officer and a Jamaican “doctress,” to a hotel-keeper in both Panama and Crimea, to nursing alongside Florence Nightingale on the battlefield, writing a triumphant biography, and becoming the toast of London — all the time shattering the confines and stereotypical prejudices of her colonial Victorian era.
Seacole’s connection to emigration from Jamaica and its ties to health care get particular, compassionate focus in “Marys Seacole.” You will rarely get such a faithful and lyrical Jamaican patois as here, and if you have had any experience in a New York hospital, you’ll find yourself blinking at the authenticity of a scene of two nurses on the job.
Likewise, the contrast between two Jamaican nannies and a white American mom ring true as can be.
Playwright Drury takes the bold choice of juggling this naturalism with impressionistic and expressionistic angles on her heroine. The results are a dynamic swirl, enlivened by the performances of the riveting Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Mary, and Karen Kandel, Gabby Beans, Lucy Taylor, Marceline Hugot and Ismenia Mendes — all excellent — as characters who emanate from life and legend.
Mariana Sanchez’s sets, Kaye Voyce’s costumes, and Jiyoung Chang’s lighting all suit this immersive introduction to Seacole, who has been honored of late with a prominent statue in London.
The Lincoln Center Theater provides us with suggested reading in the program, a nice touch to this ambitious labor of love.