Right before the pandemic shutdown in 2020, TimeLine Theatre presented James Ijames’s sorrowful and powerful Kill Move Paradise, in which a group of Black men murdered by the police gather in a purgatorial afterlife, where a fax machine spits out an ever-growing list of more Black people killed by the state. At the same time that Kill Move Paradise was in production, Steppenwolf was preparing to open Ijames’s The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, starring Nora Dunn as the first First Lady facing her own hallucinatory hellscape on her deathbed.
The difference, of course, is that Martha Washington deserves the mental damnation she’s caught up in. She owned other human beings, after all. Sure, it’s possible to parse the historical record to find the loopholes that tell us that gosh, she just didn’t have the legal right to manumit the people she inherited from her first husband’s estate. And Queen Elizabeth II couldn’t single-handedly grant independence to countries colonized by the empire, but that doesn’t stop those oppressed in her name from celebrating her demise. (See Black Twitter, Irish Twitter, etc., etc.) The Black people in Martha’s household are ready to party when she goes. But first, they’re determined to hold their “mistress” accountable through a series of visitations and interrogations.
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha WashingtonThrough 10/9: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; Wed 9/28, 2:30 PM only, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$96
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Ijames’s play, now finally making its long-postponed Steppenwolf premiere, isn’t about making nice with White Woman Tears. When Cindy Gold’s Martha resorts to that tactic at one point in the show, it feels like watching any of numerous Karens-Caught-on-Camera videos on social media of nasty racist women pleading white innocence. His 90-minute piece draws on pop culture, from game shows to The People’s Court, where Martha tries to plead her case, to tease out the historical record. Director Whitney White’s superb ensemble leans into the anachronistic anarchy and hilarity of these interludes without losing sight of the characters’ underlying rage.
What’s really on trial here (and this was also a theme in Kill Move Paradise, where our function as spectators to injustice was interrogated by the characters) is white complicity. Martha could free the slaves that George left her (and that he instructed in his will would be freed upon Martha’s death) at any time. All her hemming and hawing and poor-poor-pitiful-me posturing doesn’t cover up one simple fact: she doesn’t want to do it. She enjoys having other people in her power.
More outrageously, she wants to continue the fiction that they actually love and care about her. Even as her deathbed nightmares (which at times evoke the visit of Ethel Rosenberg to Roy Cohn in Angels in America) convince her that the people she owns are plotting to kill her, she won’t do the obvious thing to fix that problem. As the chorus of slaves tells her near the end, “FREE us. Damn!”
It’s monstrous. It’s America. And Ijames’s play is about laughing bitterly in the face of the comforting myths constructed around the Founding Fathers and Mothers. That might seem like a bit of an easy target, but given how much of a price we’re still paying for coddling those who would rather have white supremacy than democracy . . . well.
The great strength of Ijames’s script is that it’s not merely a jeremiad about the evils of slavery. It’s about how the foundational ideals we claim as a nation have all been tainted by that original sin. Including the notion of “family.” Victor Musoni’s William visits Martha’s dream early on, reminding her that he is both her nephew and her grandson; his mother, Ann Dandridge (Nikki Crawford) is Martha’s half-sister, and his father was Martha’s stepson. Rape was one of the bedrocks of slavery; denial of family bonds came easy for those who profited by it.
Gold’s Martha is a marvel of fluttery toxicity, playing up her self-imposed victimhood like a bird pretending to have a broken wing. Crawford’s Ann provides the moral center as a woman forced into the role of Martha’s boon companion. The pain of that grotesque relationship comes through clearly in quieter moments amid the madcap satirical narrative. Donovan Session and Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Sucky Boy and Davy, two of Martha’s slaves, deconstruct old minstrel tropes in their comic interactions. (Clemons-Hopkins is familiar to fans of Hacks as Marcus, the assistant to Jean Smart’s demanding comic diva; they also make a hilarious cameo as George, telling Gold’s Martha “That booty is checked and balanced!”) Sydney Charles and Celeste M. Cooper work in similar tandem as Priscilla and Doll, two of Martha’s slaves, and also as Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross (Izumi Inaba’s costumes provide their own running comedic commentary throughout).
It’s crucial to understand that Ijames (who won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for his play Fat Ham) has framed this story as a dream/nightmare. But underneath the scattershot historical tidbits, righteous anger, and harsh laughter is a larger question: how much are we collectively responsible for each other and for the dream of the nation we share? And how long will it be till we do the right thing?