Adding a new dimension to LCT3 with a series of in-depth conversations.
JACKIE SIBBLIES DRURY, author of MARYS SEACOLE
In conversation with scholar DR. KRISTINA HUANG, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
Continued from Part 1
Dr. Kristina Huang: I’m also very interested in the Marys. Can you say more about the title?
Jackie Sibblies Drury: All of the characters in the play, their names are some variation on Mary. So the question became: why don't we fracture elements of her autobiography and fracture elements of the details of her life and spread them out over all of these characters? Things that she alludes to, but also elements of her life that could have happened.
There was something that I read, and I don't remember who wrote it, but she makes reference to a black aide that comes with her to the Crimea. There was speculation that this was an illegitimate daughter of hers. I found that interesting, this daughter/not‑daughter, maybe apprentice, because that's also another kind of maternal relationship in some ways.
I was excited about having this slippage, where there could be a character who is Mary’s daughter, who's also not her daughter, who's also Mary in the past, who's also someone who Mary never was -- having that echo of Mary throughout all of the characters. I felt like that echo might bring to mind all of the different roles that women are asked to play in their daily lives.
KH: I love those palimpsestic qualities and sitting with these different iterations of Mary over time. I think also of the way that the Americas have been structured by all these different afterlives of slavery, and then thinking about the ways in which we're implicated.
There's a point in your play where Miriam talks about going to Jamaica. I would hope (I’m speaking very candidly here) that people consider this: how the death and destruction that a previous Mary faced while carrying out the work of care (whoever that Mary might be) were shaped by racist, gendered, imperial structures of profit that still exist today. I thought about that when reading your play, specifically when you mention the tourist industry, and the ways in which we also traffic in other people's homes, sites that are entangled in pain, pleasure, suffering, and survival.
I think there's a desire in this political moment we’re in right now, a liberal impulse to say, “I know what the problems are” and thinking that care work is to passively acknowledge these problems and to look at them as long as they don’t disrupt our sense of comfort. What I think the play does so effectively is that it really captures the spirit of what Mary was really obsessed with, which is the scene of action.
When I was reading her autobiography, I remember that was the phrase that I latched onto, the repetition of "the scene of action." Even though you might not get a full sense of her interior life – like how she goes through her childhood super-quickly – she says throughout her narrative: “these are the things that I've done,” over and over again. It's not just about the heroics, but about accountability. Those are the things I was thinking about as I was moving in between your play and the autobiography.
JSD: I worked on this other play about a genocide that happened in Namibia before World War I (“We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915”) . In researching that play, I realized that all of the sites of prison camps, where there were mass executions, are all sites of their contemporary tourism industry.
You go and stay on a former prison island, where they have villas and stuff. Because of the slave trade and because of colonialism, all of these romantic, beachy, warm places are sites of massive trauma. It's so deeply odd. I don't even know how to think about it. It's just odd.
KH: A lot of your work is very much about care in the face of trauma and death. Could you say a little bit more about that, in relation to how you've been working with the actors and the other people involved in this? I do think that there are resonances of what you're talking about, resonances between what's in your play and what's happening right now. I'm just curious about that.
JSD: The actors in the play, and the entire creative team, are completely amazing. The vibe in the room over the course of rehearsals has been totally generous and completely selfless. For instance, one of the characters, this character of Miriam, she's given a lot of ingénue-y things to do. The actor in that role, Ismenia Mendes, is fully in control and aware of what her tears mean, as a young white woman, what that role is, and what it's doing in the context of the play. It's really edifying. Also, the director that I'm working with is a literal genius. Her name is Lileana Blain-Cruz, and she is making the play much more complex than it is on paper, in a way that's really sensorial and good in terms of showing images of trauma in different ways, and layering that in.
Something that she and I talked a lot about is how all of these typically female roles, these caring roles, involve so much emotional labor that is often completely unseen, or completely expected of women to do, or something that women are supposed to be naturally inclined towards. This whole other layer of social interaction, where you are asked to hold space for other people's emotions in a way that's stressful is very much taken for granted.
That level of labor, on top of the actual physical toil of having to, with your hands, mend other human beings, is a crazy, dense, tiring thing. We've been talking a lot about figuring out ways to make that work visible, and to make the overwhelming-ness of that something that someone can experience through the play.
KH: I’m struck by the way care work is illustrated in the play: it's can be both intimate and isolating. And I’m left with thinking about care work in the wake of ongoing destruction, and how important it is to push against the enchantment of progress narratives that we tell ourselves in order to relieve ourselves of the difficult, continuous responsibility that we have to one another.
JSD: As the play goes on, things get more and more dense. The thing that is really neat, I was sitting in the audience the other day, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who is playing Mary Seacole, was doing one of her many multipage monologues that she has memorized and figured out how to perform.
Reading the autobiography is one thing, and I am biased, but I think that Quincy is one of the most amazing actors of her generation. I think she's a phenomenal human being. But she brings so much complexity to this very particular, to my ear, historic voice. I felt like I was the kid in The Princess Bride. Somehow, just with her understanding of the character, and reading the story, she was painting this whole world, even though it was just one person talking.
It's really exciting. It's exciting to see women of color in period gowns on stage talking in accented English, in incredibly baroque ways. I don't know why this is so satisfying. I don't know why this doesn't happen more. But I associate that kind of transporting language and that posture of being neutral and surveying the world around you, as being such a white thing. It’s nice to be transported by someone else.
KH: I've really enjoyed hearing you talk about the play, and I can't wait to see it. Congratulations on making it to the first preview.
JSD: Thank you so much for spending time with this play and lending your own experience to make other people's experience with the play better. Thank you.