Review: At Steppenwolf Theatre, Miz Martha Washington’s Crazy Dreamscape Offers Comic History Lessons and Discomfort

Leaving the theater after seeing this wise and hysterically funny play, my first thought was, I would like to see this produced in Florida, where the governor and legislature have decreed that slavery cannot be discussed in schools—for fear of making students uncomfortable. It can be healthy to be uncomfortable. Laughter that arises from discomfort can be healing, wounding and thought-provoking.

There is plenty of laughter of all kinds in James Ijames’ astonishing play, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, now on stage at Steppenwolf Theatre. Whitney White directs the crazy dreamscape (or twisted reality) that faces Martha Washington when she awakes and rises from her sick bed. It’s Christmas Eve, 1800, at Mt. Vernon, the Washington family’s Virginia plantation. The father of our country died last year and now Martha, “the mother of America,” is feverish and tossing about in her bed. (Cindy Gold plays Martha with wit, rage and an inability to recognize her own offenses, let alone her privilege.) She’s tended by her personal maid, Ann Dandridge (Nikki Crawford), with whom she has a complicated history.

Mt. Vernon and its white family are served by several hundred enslaved people, most of them working in the fields. Here the other cast members are house servants. They all are well aware of the provisions of GW’s will, which says his slaves are to be freed upon his wife’s death. (All the enslaved workers at Mt. Vernon are not covered by GW’s will; about a third of them—the dower slaves—revert to the estate of Martha’s first husband upon her death.)

Left to right, Donovan Session, Sydney Charles, Celeste M. Cooper, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Victor Musoni and Cindy Gold. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

While Martha lingers and hallucinates in her sick bed, two of the house slaves, Priscilla (Sydney Charles) and Doll (Celeste M. Cooper) giggle and gossip about the state of her health while they carry on their regular household duties, scrubbing floors, polishing silver.

Priscilla and Doll sing, “It won’t be long, ’til we be free. / Massa Washington dead, he done give us de key. / Missus Washington sick in bed. / Don’t have to wait on heaven, ’cause soon you will be / Dead.”

William (Victor Musoni), Ann’s young son, enters Martha’s room, jumps on her bed, and she wakes up, suddenly well. William asks Martha if she’s his Auntie Granny, because “my momma is yo’ sister and my daddy is yo’ son … complicated, ain’t it?” William’s monologue, when he offers to tell Martha a story, is a raucous prose poem  of the centuries of social injustice in America; William tells it like a southern preacher.

The other two house servants, Davy (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Sucky Boy (Donovan Session) play multiple roles in the events that follow, as do Priscilla, Doll and William.

Cindy Gold and Nikki Crawford. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

As strange things start happening in her household or in her dream, Martha is out of bed and observing the goings-on. After joining in a vigorous dance scene, she says “I do believe you … are trying to kill me.” Not surprisingly, Martha is beginning to worry about her personal safety as well as her health.

Martha’s dreams become more colorful with a visit from Mr. Lawyer Man (Session) to consult about her late husband’s will; a slave auction (she’s on the block); visits with gloriously costumed Betsy Ross and Abigail Adams (Doll and Priscilla); a quiz show (Name That Revolutionary in which Martha is the contestant); a visit from Thomas Jefferson; and, of course, the trial. “Mr. George Washington to the stand!” brings on the father of our country (Clemons-Hopkins), haloed and in a sexy uniform.

I list that series of scenes, not as a spoiler, but to highlight the way Ijames spools out his history lessons. Ijames (pronounced Imes) told an interviewer in 2019 that laughter [by slaves] “is an act of resistance in the face of cruelty. It is an act of resistance to be happy when everything in the world is built in such a way that you should not be happy.“

The cast is outstanding from opening to curtain call. Whitney White’s direction is sharp and fast-paced; this is not a play that allows you to linger on a thought. Clint Ramos’ scenic design opens with a scaled-down façade of the Mt. Vernon plantation house. When the façade rises, Martha’s bed dominates the stage. The set design is enhanced by Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting and Fan Zhang’s sound design. Costumes are by Izumi inaba.

The ensemble. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Playwright Ijames received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022 for Fat Ham. The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington has been performed at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and in Philadelphia and Washington DC. His play Kill Move Paradise was staged in 2020 at Timeline Theatre. He lives in South Philadelphia.

Reiterating my opening comment, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington should be staged in Miami, Orlando or Tallahassee. The result might be an immediate attempt at censorship but the publicity would be spectacular—and inspiring. It might be a modern-day version of the premiere of J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, when Irish nationalist political objections and use of the word “shift” (a female undergarment) brought down the wrath of the audience and the Dublin police upon the theater company. The same thing happened when the play was produced in New York in 1911. In both cases, the riots were started by Irish nationalists who thought the content of the play was insulting to Ireland and an offense to public morals.

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington continues  through October 9 in the Downstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Running time is 90 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $20-$96 for performances daily except Monday.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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