Movies and plays that highlight the deep depravity that was chattel slavery in the US pretty much always focus on misery and abuse and the hellish conditions these human beings were forced to live with and in, which is a logical way to do it. However, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames (Fat Ham, Kill Move Paradise) takes a predictably (for him) different tack in his play The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington (now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre). As its title implies, this play is a fantasy invention: a fever dream confrontation between several of her 200+ slaves and the “mother of our country.” She is on her deathbed, but her slaves are focused on the fact that, per her husband’s will, they will be freed upon her death. Thus, even for the ones who don’t hate her, this moment is full of eager anticipation.
Ijames walks a narrow path between angry drama and outlandish parody…and he gets away with it. This is a play in which Martha (Cindy Gold), clad in her pajamas because, after all, she is actually asleep in bed, dances and sings with her slaves to an old slave song. This is a play in which slaves suddenly materialize and vanish, the way people often do in dreams. This is a play in which the one slave who seems to care unequivocally for Martha (Nikki Crawford’s Ann) turns out to have a solid reason to wish her dead. This is a play in which bizarre, anachronistic, comic contrivances like game shows and slave impersonations of Betsy Ross (Celeste M. Cooper) and Abigail Adams (Sydney Charles) are milked for everything they can give. This is a play in which characters’ emotions and goals turn on a dime. This is a play in which laughter, a sound we don’t often associate with slave plays, plays a huge role, even becoming a powerful sonic weapon wielded against the status quo. This is a play that dares to call out Martha Washington for the two and a half years after her husband’s death that she still insisted on holding onto her “property”…and finds her wanting.
This is not a play—or a playwright—that pulls punches.
The “trial” of the title is twofold. Martha’s subconscious mind, which of course knows that keeping the slaves is pure selfishness, uses them to point out her hypocrisy. One scene has Carl Clemons-Hopkins happily serving her and then suddenly doing one of those “on a dime” turns in order to berate her for the ugliness of it all. (Seeing the imposing Clemons-Hopkins angrily and abruptly wheel around on the petite Gold is a frightening and powerful moment that helps explain Martha’s subconscious fears that her slaves might revolt and kill her.) This internal trial is “Miz Washington” trying to deal with the evil she has willingly been a part of.
The other, more literal, trial occurs late in the play. As her slaves—who are suddenly lawyers (Charles and the hilarious Donovan Session, who plays a slave named “Sucky Boy,” a monicker with which the play gets plenty of mileage) and even a judge (Victor Musoni)—turn the table on her, reversing the power dynamics between them and presenting evidence against her, we can see just how much she understands despite her constant protestations that she was just doing what was expected. Even the ghost of George Washington, decked out in a decadent and gaudy open-front military-style long coat (with no shirt) and sporting a sparkly halo—Izumi Inaba must have had a ball designing this costume—will not exonerate her, claiming (falsely) that all of the slaves were hers, not his. (Historically, the Mount Vernon slaves were undoubtedly glad that this was not the case, as he actually owned 123 of the estate’s slaves and thus could free only them, while the remaining 194 were redistributed among Martha’s family when she died.)
Whitney White’s multilayered direction absolutely sparkles, making full use of Clint Ramos’ set, which contains a round platform on which Martha’s bed can roll forward or back, as well as a rich field of blooming cotton that surrounds it. (I hope I don’t need to explain the symbolism of that.) Late in the play, Amith Chandrashaker’s lush lighting becomes stark, revealing that the “cotton” is as false as the American promise of freedom. For far too many people, the “dream” was—and still is—a nightmare.
Tickets for The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington are available through Steppenwolf Theatre. It plays until Oct. 9. For other reviews, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.