The pointillist visions of Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat don’t cohere when you look at them up close. From inches away, the canvas reads as a worked surface, flecked with the artist’s reds, blues, and greens. The satisfaction lies in stepping back slowly and watching the materiality of the medium fall out of focus as the disparate colors resolve into a scene.
Leyla Levi’s production of Jacki Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole offers no such moment of resolution. Perhaps it’s the intent of Drury’s script, a time-bending biodrama centering the 19th-century Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole. We amble between colonial Kingston and contemporary Manhattan, as a sextet of David Geffen School of Drama acting students double roles to flesh out both worlds. In a Jamaican hotel and a New York hospital, Seacole and two other Jamaicans care for white women. The play ends with Seacole’s daring work in the Crimea, tending to fallen commonwealth soldiers in the 1854 war.
Lines are blurred. Not in a good way. The cast ambles in and out of period dialect. T.F. Dubois’ expressive costuming helps sharpen the story. But Yichen Zhou’s lighting transitions are curious. She uses a cold blue to denote both time travel and introspective meditations on memory. This choice invokes the cyclical nature of intergenerational trauma, but it muddies the borders between the two time periods in a production that demands clarity at every turn. If the worlds are never truly separate, their collapse—which happens when Seacole et al. comfort wailing white women in modern dress—is not surprising but inevitable. Great plays are always a step ahead of their audience.
The stilted execution of this complex text draws attention to theater’s limitations rather than its possibilities. The actor playing the titular character did not know her lines. Rather than a display of Seacole’s self-proclaimed “energy and vitality,” the performance was one long act of remembering. Language did not bubble up from the body but was clawed out from the hippocampus. It’s difficult to make magic when the magicians don’t come to the show prepared.
There are moments of potency, too. Abigail C. Onwunali gives a haunting performance as Mary’s mother. In a rare moment of silence, her character teaches Mamie (played by an excellent Whitney Andrews) to wipe a British woman’s vomit off the floor. B. Entsminger’s sensible scenic design gives way to a spectacular moment down the stretch. After Merry’s (Karen Killeen’s) stylized miscarriage, a stagehand pulls down the sky-blue back wall onto the floor revealing a misted, corpse-laden battlefield. The hills of Crimea loom against the now-revealed brick wall of the theatre. The scene reminds us of the daring work Seacole ran halfway across the world to do.
Seurat’s careful attention to individual pockets of color allowed for his abstractions to form a whole. But Levi paints with too broad strokes for Drury’s intricate project. As the Yale Repertory theatre emptied out, Bob Marley played through the loudspeakers and implored the audience to not “worry, about a thing.” But this critic was left stewing, wanting for a moment of cohesion this production of Marys Seacole was unable to provide.