Welcome to the Curtain Call, our most queuing take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond.
A renewed interest in the early years of our country manifests itself in phases across the country. Broadway welcomes all-female/non-binary production soon 1776The Tony Award-winning musical about our founding fathers, reimagined through the creative lens of co-directors Diana Paulus and Jeffrey L. Page. And in Chicago, Steppenwolf presents playwright James Igems’ The Most Brilliantly Lamentable Trial Of The Midge Martha WashingtonA takedown of the original First Lady as seen through a time-jumping kaleidoscope.
Ijames spent eight years working at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and it was here that he first gained interest in Washington’s relationship with his slaves. While the president declared the emancipation of her slaves upon her death, Martha made no such promise of those portions of her dowry share – the 84 slaves she had inherited from her first husband, Daniel Park Custis.
“I found a letter between Abigail Adams and Marie Crunch where they were discussing that Martha thought her slaves were trying to kill her,” Ijams said. “And I was like, ‘This is spicy.’ And I thought it would be a good game.”
RELATED: How James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Fat Ham’ Overturns the Script on ‘Hamlet’
No Tea, No Shade:
A two-dimensional façade of Mount Vernon rises at the beginning midge martha To reveal the first lady (Cindy Gould) with a hacking cough, Ann Dandridge (Nikki Crawford) attends—both slave and half-sister. The cringe-worthy revelation is one of many resonant moments as the dynamic ensemble reveals the multi-layered layers of systemic racism baked into our nation’s DNA. White people can compare to Dickens’ Christmas CarolBut Ijams uses this form not as a morality game but to perpetuate our whitewashed history.
“The moment Martha enters a dream, I thought I could do whatever I wanted,” Ijames said. “I’m a true disciple of Suzanne Lowry Parks and the feeling that the American mythos is set to end as a black artist. Like, it’s really my responsibility to go, ‘Yeah… we’ll have a little bit of it. Will break.'”
“Martha was a pimp. She had three hundred cats working for the free man. He’s picking up all the cotton… for free. She was just like ‘Slave’s Betta Have My Cotton! Pimpin’ Your Honor.” , The Most Brilliantly Lamentable Trial Of The Midge Martha Washington
According to the playwright’s notes, director Whitney White has kept the pace sharp in between, employing Ijames’ scripted laughs as well as stepping and other colliding moments, which are “not light or funny”. “It’s like showing one’s teeth. Especially in the case of slaves. Their laughter is hostile. Loud! Laughter is a weapon.”
When George Washington Appears (a captivating Carl Clemons-Hopkins, hacks) speaking with a “southern urban dialect” — “think TI or André 3000 or CeeLo Green. (If you don’t know them… well…),” as Ijames notes, straight to a scene public courtThe Ghostly Phantom puts it as he sees it:
“Martha was a pimp. She had three hundred cats working for the free man. He’s picking up all the cotton… for free. She was just like ‘Slave’s Betta Have My Cotton! Pimpin’ Your Honor.”
It doesn’t take long for the first lady’s true colors to reveal themselves. “Let me speak. Why am I being treated like a common criminal? To bring you from a terrifying barbarian land to the light of civilization!” she says. “I have been good! I’ve been kind! Where would any of you be without me? You cunning, angry, ungrateful-“
Ijames stops short of the n-word, noting in the script, “Like a bomb to come…. She’s about to say the n-word, but why exactly does she say it… see it called Paula Deen.” Where did you get
Let’s have a moment:
In the forerunners of the women’s suffrage movement, Betsy Ross (Celeste M. Cooper) and Abigail Adams (Sydney Charles) offer Martha an opportunity to recognize the equality between slavery and her own limitations as a woman in a patriarchal society.
“Now you’re free! You’re allowed to do whatever you want to do!” Betsy says. “What does it feel like? … to be free?”
“It feels like… it feels right,” Martha says. “It’s the most natural of feelings.”
the last word:
As the mid-term elections approach, a divisive dark cloud is looming large. Queer voices – James Ijams among them – provide an opportunity to turn reflection into action. Breaking stereotypes, the playwright puts the audience in a state of awareness, but how we respond to that awareness is the power of live theater.
“There’s nothing you can do that’s wrong in this area,” says Ijames of his experience going to the theater. “Your experience is right. If you have an emotional reaction to something, accept it. Hug him, cry, laugh, whatever, but never read it, it’s failure and don’t let other people around you frame it as failure.”
“And if there Is The moment you have a visceral experience of failure, examine it and ask yourself, “What’s really happening?” If your reaction is that you think you are doing something wrong by looking at something, then it should be investigated. Where is this coming from? What is the genealogy of that feeling?”
The Most Brilliantly Lamentable Trial Of The Midge Martha Washington Plays at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago until October 9, 2022.