In a playwright's note tucked into the program for the Chicago premiere of
“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” at Steppenwolf Theatre, Pulitzer Prize-winner James Ijames insists “I don't come here to shame the founders or, in the case of my play, their spouses; I come here to test the strength of their ideals.”
Don't be fooled. In this 90-minute fever dream of a play, Ijames goes way beyond shame. He not only lays bare the original sin of slavery in all its infamy, he also exposes the hypocrisy, immorality and political failure tainting the very ideals on which the country was founded. In other words, he tests us and finds us seriously wanting.
Ijames' starting premise is straightforward enough. The recently widowed Martha Washington (Cindy Gold) lies ill and alone in her Mount Vernon bed, while excitement grows among the enslaved people who tend to her and the plantation because, in his will, President George Washington promised them freedom when she died.
This makes her fear they may hasten her demise, but she's also flooded with other emotions; she has both a sense of entitlement that makes her relish her position of power and the misbelief that the people who she enslaves actually care for her. She even expects affection from her maid Ann Dandridge (Nikki Crawford), though she fails to acknowledge that Ann is her half-sister or that Ann's son, William (Victor Musoni), is both her nephew and her grandson (his father was Martha's stepson) — something he reminds her of in her dream.
While the concept is clear, the structure and style are a hodgepodge of ideas , some of which work better than others. There's more than a nod to “A Christmas Carol” as various characters visit Miz Martha — including George, done up with an outlandish halo — and try to make her see the error of her ways. At one point, she even gets caught up in the singing and dancing until the music stops abruptly, leaving her stunned. Only, unlike Scrooge, the “Mother of America” never has an epiphany. She just becomes more resolute in her selfishness and obliviousness to her sins.
Under Whitney White's increasingly frenetic direction, the sketches multiply as the people who are enslaved try and fail to lead Miz Martha to a moral awakening. They stage a game show with prizes named for American products. They conduct a trial like The People's Court.
Vaudeville, minstrel shows and more mingle as individuals and the collective ask for their freedom, cajole, demand and threaten to no avail. Befuddled as she may seem, Gold's Martha digs in, her self-imposed victimhood and obstinacy an indictment of all white people.
Some of the satirical routines are very funny or bitter or both. Overall there is a scattershot quality, as if Ijames is trying every way he can to make his point.
Sydney Charles and Celeste M. Cooper play Priscilla and Doll, maids who don't give a hoot for their mistress. Then the actors become two of America's most beloved icons, Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross, in a hilarious bit made more so by Izumi Inaba's outrageous costumes. Of the men, Donovan Session as Sucky Boy and Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Davy slyly deconstruct minstrel tropes in their interactions.
The staging is as presentational as the acting. Clint Ramos' striking scenic design features a facade of Mount Vernon amid a field of stylized cotton plants, and Martha's bed rolls downstage and up to focus the scenes. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting and Fan Zhang's sound design and original music have an otherworldly quality, while Inaba's costumes are both fantastical and fantastic.
There's no question that “Miz Martha Washington” is shot through with brilliance, but it's not my favorite Ijames play so far. That honor goes to “Kill Move Paradise” at TimeLine Theatre in 2020. And I can't wait until “Fat Ham,” which won him the Pulitzer Prize in New York, comes to Chicago.