In conversation with scholar DR. KRISTINA HUANG, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Dr. Kristina Huang: How or when did you first encounter Mary Seacole?

Jackie Sibblies Drury (Playwright): It’s strange: I’ve been trying to remember when I knew about her as a figure, and I've concluded that I always knew that she existed but didn't know very much about her.  I knew that there was this Jamaican Florence Nightingale, but I started doing research about her more recently.  I encountered her autobiography, and read it, and was so confused and inspired by it. 

KH: Yes. She's super-charismatic as a writer, and her travel narrative is a highly self-conscious piece of work. I love the fact that she's operating in these masculine spaces. It's funny: you had said in an email that you didn't think your play was really about the historical Mary Seacole. I felt like it really was. 

JSD: It’s been interesting to strike this balance between talking about this incredibly, as you said, charismatic, and impressive woman, while also finding faults with her.  Sometimes, when working on the play, I've asked myself: why can't we only celebrate her?  Why can't we only see her in good lights?  But then that would be so boring. 

KH: I think that's exactly what makes Mary Seacole so wonderful as a historical figure to focus on, or at least dialogue with, because she's so contradictory.  She's somebody who is obviously very attentive to colonial racial dynamics. And, at the same time, especially after the first couple of chapters of her autobiography, you see her fully embracing the role of a British imperial subject, as if that position was neutral.

JSD: That's insane and complicated.  Is that a common posture of Creole writers at that time?  I think I don't fully understand the self-conception of race at that time.  I try not to graft some self-loathing on to her writing, or psychologize it, because I know that is not necessarily fair.

KH: Mary Seacole was living during a time where there was a growing black and brown middle class in Jamaica, before and after the British Emancipation Act of 1834. Despite this Act, the reality was that those who had claimed people as property continued to exploit formerly enslaved people. Colonial officials and social reformists (among them were missionaries) justified the exploitation because they believed that enslaved people had to “acclimate” to a free status. This colonial racism interlocked with class structures. There was this growing middle‑class sensibility among brown and black Jamaicans in the nineteenth century. Dr. Belinda Edmondson has observed that nineteenth-century, mixed-race Jamaicans were often associated with urban life, and that brown culture during that period was “the first manifestation of Jamaican middle-class culture: rampantly consumerist, socially ambitious, insular yet outward looking.”

So, that’s the context from which Seacole was writing in. Her travel narrative was so self-consciously for a British audience. I can't help but feel that her care for her patients intersects with the fact that she was an enterprising person who took pride in her self-sufficiency.

JSD: Like an untrustworthy narrator. It does seem that she was writing to sell her autobiography in order to fundraise for a new venture.  Her book is very, very consciously for a moneyed British audience.  The posture that she was taking for her intended audience is suspect in some ways. 

KH: Yes.  You mention in passing [in the play] that she returns back from the Crimean War bankrupt.  That particular positionality … I think it's important to keep in mind.  At the same time, I also think there's a part of me that wants to maintain some heroic image of her.

JSD: Everything she did is insane.  I've never been to the Crimea, and I've never written an autobiography, and this is 200 years later.  

KH: This is probably something that you've been thinking a lot about, which is this kind of temporal entanglement between the past and the present.  I'd just like to hear if that was a very important dynamic to you in writing this play.

JSD: Definitely.  Part of my own excitement about her as a figure we take pride in is to try to have that pride rub off on the women serving in contemporary versions of the role that she created for herself.  There's something really exciting about thinking how difficult and necessary those roles of caring and nurturing and healing are. 

Even though I just said that she wrote the book in an entrepreneurial way, you don't put together this amazing heroic story of yourself if you're not trying to reach through time to have your story be known.  She was forward‑thinking and wanted to have some sort of fame.  It felt like she was reaching forward, and we should be reaching back.

KH: Yes.  I could feel that the tension between self-mythmaking and what care work actually entail – and the tension between collective, communal care and privatized and private notions of care was really fascinating to me.  Especially when you're thinking about hospital workers and the different industries that cluster around care work.  I'm curious about your research process.  

JSD: I can't talk to an academic about my research process, because it's very ad hoc.  My research process was Google. I did read a lot of stuff, but it was entirely random.  I've been working on it, not exclusively, but over the course of years.  I would go to CUNY and take out random books about nursing, and then not be able to read half of them because they were too esoteric for me, and then be like, okay, not those.  Or I would go to NYU and find an anthropologist that did her dissertation on nannies in Brooklyn, and I read her manuscript in the library.  That helped in some ways to shape that scene. 

I read some of Florence Nightingale's letters and her contemporary, Lady Alicia Blackwood, who also wrote letters and made sketches. The nursing school triage scene came out of working on this play while visiting Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a public university in Pennsylvania that was doing a different play of mine.  While I was there, their theater students were training to act as patients to help train nurses, and I got to watch their mass casualty nurse training scenario. 

So, it was a lot of running into things slightly randomly that had to do with nursing, childcare, eldercare, or medicine over the past couple of years, putting them together in a little basket.  That's the opposite of a thought-through research plan. 

KH: That's immersive research!   It was great to read it. I was really interested in all the intergenerational relationships that you're exploring.  You’re thinking about these different spheres where care work is necessary: eldercare, childcare, medicine, physical injury, trauma.  I'm curious about the figure of the mother, or mothering.

JSD: Yes.  The thing that I thought was so neat about the autobiography, and also so completely odd, is how quickly she moves past her upbringing and also her entire marriage, in about the first five pages.  I really zoomed in on that. 

I feel like these cycles of child separation—for lack of a better term— still exist, definitely in Jamaica and a lot of former colonies: having a young girl come and serve as a de facto housekeeper/servant/ward/what-have-you as a way for that child to have access to a better schooling.  It seems like generations of women have grown up or been brought up as servants in other people's houses.  What that does to the mother-daughter dynamic is hard to think through and talk about. 

I got very excited to think through a version of Mary Seacole's relationship to her own mother, particular because she talks a lot about her blood and British citizenship, Britishness and Scottish-ness, and definitely makes observations about the plights of black people in the Americas and in Panama but doesn't identify with them in a personal way.  There is something about her clinging so much to this father's identity that made me want to go in the other direction.

KH: Yes, I think there's something there.  The parts (of her travel narrative) that are situated in Panama are really interesting to me for the same reasons. She clearly is observing forms of anti-blackness in the Americas. To some degree, those observations are depersonalized and clinical. She seems to cling to an idea of being somebody who is in the service of the British Empire, as though that position doesn’t require furthering interrogation, or as though it were objective. For her, care is a black and white kind of thing, you know what I mean? 

JSD: Yes.  That's the play in a nutshell, that kind of wordplay. 

KH: It's black and white and it's also not black and white. In the travel narrative, she situates her work into this almost clinical, moral, scientific approach, but it's so deeply entwined with colonial racism. 

JSD: Yes, straight up. 

Read Part 2 of LCT3-D with Jackie Sibblies Drury and Dr. Kristina Huang.