On Planet Internet, where anything at all can become fact even if it isn’t, you might think that the nation’s first First Lady, Martha Washington, had a half-sister who was a black woman. She probably did.
But “probably” is a word often forgotten digitally, and historians are not quite ready to make a sure thing of Ann Dandridge Costin’s place on Martha Dandridge Washington’s family tree.
I write this at the outset of reviewing the bold and theatrically bright new play called “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” because James Ijames’ script removes the “probably” and treats the blood relationship between Martha and Ann as fact. The play also has Ann being Martha’s personal slave among about 200 slaves the Washingtons owned, which isn’t exactly the case. And it has a feverishly dying Martha Washington not freeing her slaves until she is dead in 1802, which is partly true. Some she did, as George Washington had instructed in his will, on and before her death. And according to records at Mount Vernon, others were enslaved long after her death.
All of this makes a sound history lesson, but the many gray areas don’t help create a narrative arc on stage — especially in a play like “Miz Martha,” which needs a First Lady who unquestionably shares her bloodline with slaves. Plus, no matter how good-natured she may appear in relation to the servants, she has to be unable to grasp the moral reprehension of slavery. (That description of her thinking fits the real-life Martha to a tee, historians agree.)
Whatever the truth or fiction of Martha Washington’s life, you have to hand it to James Ijames (pronounced EE-yams), a much-seen African American actor in these parts. He’s done something to make his take on the First Lady unassailable: He’s put the whole thing into a dream. A nightmare, really, although a highly entertaining one. With the play as a dream, Ijames has license to consider any premise he likes. His Martha Washington (the unendingly talented Nancy Boykin, who seems game for just about any sort of role) is feverish and on the verge of death. She falls into a dream in which her slaves serve her, but also cajole, taunt, and mock her, and finally put her on trial for her refusal to understand right and wrong.
Flashpoint Theatre Company’s world premiere is a heady and turbulent play and production, and involves several A-list folks in addition to Ijames and Boykin. Ed Sobel, former associate director at the Arden Theatre Company and before that, with Steppenwolf in Chicago, directs “Miz Martha” as if he were setting in motion an amusement park ride. (Sobel has become Temple University’s head of playwriting in the theater department.) The lighting and the movable set pieces — focusing on Martha’s sick bed — are by Thom Weaver, himself now diving into playwriting. Ann, who is either Martha’s kin or not, is played with a wonderful turn-on-a-dime mood toward Martha by Melanye Finister, a long-time member of People’s Light stage company.
A fine set of actors portray the other slaves in Miz Martha’s household and in her feverish mind: Steve Wright, Taysha Canales, Jaylene Clark Owens, Aaron Bell and Darryl Gene Daughtry Jr. They play mind games – part of the fun is their use of current language that comes straight from the urban streets – and show up as Betsy Ross, Dolly Madison, Thomas Jefferson and even England’s King George, for whom Martha’s a traitor in any case.
In one particularly edgy scene, they put Martha up for sale in a slave market. In another, she’s a contestant on a TV history game show. Ijames lets his imagination loose with Miz Martha.” The result is a skewered history that, like satire through the ages, has the ring of truth, far more thought-provoking than the questionable truths on the Internet.“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” produced by Flashpoint Theatre Company, runs through June 29 at Off-Broad Street Theatre, on Samson Street at 17th Street. 267-997-3312 or flashpointtheatre.org.