Eric Ruffin, Tina Fabrique, and Kim Bey on Mosaic's MARYS SEACOLE and Black Women Care Work

Washington D.C.

Tina Fabrique and Kim Bey | Photo: Margot Schulman

By
Nathan Pugh
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on
May 27, 2022 11:50 AM
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Features

i. corpsing 

We’ve all been at a theater show where someone makes a mistake. Maybe a light cue goes off a little late, or an actor forgets their lines, or a prop accidentally breaks midway through a scene. You’re probably familiar with the term “breaking,” like when an actor cannot control their laughter and “breaks” the fourth wall. But another term for this phenomenon is “corpsing,” which uses a more macabre metaphor for these slippages in performance. When an actor stumbles, maybe their character dies, and maybe the theatre itself dies as well.

Of course, the idea of an actor “corpsing” their character takes on even greater resonance if that actor is Black. This is the argument academic David Marriott forms in his essay “Corpsing; or, the Matter of Black Life.” For Black Americans, death is an omni-present part of their daily lives, from extrajudicial murders to the afterlives of slavery; academics have even said Black Americans are “socially dead.” 

But if being Black is a societal performance, what would happen if one “corpsed” that performance, too? Marriott writes, “For the idea that black life can be rendered as a livable life that ‘matters’ rather than a life lived in a state of injury or permanent nonexistence is to effectively transform it by corpsing the failed performance that blackness is.” In other words, in order for Black lives to actually matter, Black people (onstage and in real life) must corpse the societal performance of being a “Black” person, and through this death of performance, find some way to live. 

The radical idea of “corpsing” Blackness itself is the thematic throughline for playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s wild, expressive, formally innovative theatre. In Drury’s plays, actors are constantly corpsing the theater itself, rupturing the performance but also the ugly pantomime of race placed upon them. 

In We Are Proud to Present… (2014), Drury alternates between an educational presentation on the Herero and Namibian genocide and its rehearsal, forcing Black characters (and performers) to constantly corpse themselves out of the recreation of a genocide. In Really (2016), Drury has a photographer of color refuse to appease her white mother-in-law, while at the same time reliving scenes with her deceased lover (thereby corpsing white respectability politics). And in Fairview (2018), Drury corpses Blackness by honing in on the white gaze. Like the revolutionary androids of Westworld, the Black characters in Fairview gain consciousness of the disturbing caricature of life they’ve been forced to perform for their oppressors—people who turn out to be members of theatre audience itself.

Fairview won 2019’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and cemented Drury in the theatrical canon as a bold, uncompromising satirist of Black life. But I think Drury’s real masterpiece is Marys Seacole, first produced by Lincoln Center Theater in 2019. Marys Seacole loosely tells the story of Mary Seacole, an ambitious Jamaican nurse who traveled the world in the 19th century, providing care to those swept by plague and war. But that titular “s” at the end of the “Mary” proves crucial to Drury’s project, which isn't a singular biographical play but a pluralistic rumination on Jamaican women caretakers across time and space. 

Tina Fabrique and Kim Bey | Photo: Margot Schulman

The play combines all of Drury’s previous uses of corpsing—of performance, of time, of the white gaze, of Blackness—and frames them around something previously fleeting in Drury’s work: a Black woman telling the story of her own life. Mary Seacole herself was an autobiographer, writing the best-selling book Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. In Marys Seacole, Seacole also gets to tell her own story, one informed by the corpsing of her Blackness and the intersectional histories of motherhood, caretaking, and immigration. It’s a startling and monumental play, even on the page.

So when I heard that Washington D.C.’s Mosaic Theatre Company was putting up a production of Marys Seacole (running from May 5 through May 29), I knew I had to talk to this production team about their interpretation of the play. Speaking with the director Eric Ruffin and co-stars Tina Fabrique and Kim Bey, we talked about the play’s resonance during the pandemic, what it means to restage history so provocatively, and what care work truly means for Black women.

ii. “do you know how many women i am?”

Mary Seacole may have been an important figure in her time period, but many audience members today won’t recognize her name when watching Marys Seacole. Director Eric Ruffin said the fact that Seacole wrote her own autobiography was an important factor in choosing to direct the play. 

“[Seacole] told her own narrative when others wouldn’t,” Ruffin told me. “That’s why we know of her. So [the play is] about claiming worth and living in our own value. We start off in a place where it’s questioned, but we have an arc where they’re actually able to claim it, just as Mary Seacole claimed hers.”

Actress Tina Fabrique plays the character Duppy Mary, a version of both Mary Seacole and her mother informed by the Jamaican belief in “duppies” as restless ghosts or spirits. Fabrique said that Seacole had a particular strength for dealing with death that not everyone has. 

“I think people would recognize, especially back then in the 1850s, someone who’d been through cholera and yellow fever and had developed all of these ways of dealing with heavy illness that killed a lot of people,” Fabrique said. “[Mary Seacole] had a particular kind of courage that you don’t see all the time.”

Early on in Marys Seacole, Jackie Sibblies Drury makes sure the production team knows this show is not just about one woman, but the uncountable number of Black Jamaican women who have served caretaking roles across the world. In the stage directions, Drury writes that Mary Seacole gives a look that says, “do you see me? / do you know how many women I am? / do you know how important I am?” Ruffin wanted to make sure audiences understand this element of the show, that the character of “Mary” in the play is a synechdoche for a larger Black community. 

“Marys Seacole is the figure we must recognize,” Ruffin said. “But the parallel exists that in recognizing Marys Seacole and her contributions, adventures, travels, and sacrifices, we must also look at the legacy of and the lineage of all of the women that served in these capacities. And by extension, mothering, because a mother is the caregiver, sort of the very first caregiver.”

If one were to ask why there are so many Black and Jamaican women working currently as nurses in the United States, one would quickly discover the legacies of colonialism alive and well in the nursing field. As NPR reported in 2017, James Moss Solomon (chairman of the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica) claimed that countries like America, Canada, and the United Kingdom were “poaching” specialist nurses away from Jamaica. The resulting damage is that Jamaica struggles to care for its own people and even perform surgeries, despite an abundance of Jamaican nurses in other countries. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating entrenched institutional problems, it seems like there’s a reckoning happening with the burden of care work often placed on Black women particularly in America. According to a Nationwide Retirement Institute survey of Black caregivers, 67% of Black caregivers are worried that they can’t protect loved ones from getting sick, and 54% say they can’t take a day off. Others have also reported this strain particularly affects young Black women, who are expected (because of their race and gender) to automatically become caretakers for friends and family members.

These contemporary Black women critically do make an appearance in Marys Seacole. Actress Kim Bey plays the role of “Mary,” and portrays the main version of Mary Seacole throughout the play. But the character of “Mary” also becomes a variety of present day characters, including a geriatric care nurse, a nanny to young white children, and even an emergency triage specialist. Drury’s fluttering back and forth between history and the present day, as well as between multiple versions of the same self, ingeniously allows for the actress playing Mary to corpse the roles typically given to Black women. Actress Kim Bey, who plays Mary in this production, found the constant switching between different “Marys” to be humanizing.

“Reading the [autobiography] that [Mary Seacole] wrote, there are glimpses of, I don’t want to say doubt, but there were glimpses of her humanity,” Bey told me. “How I find and blend between all the memories is that they each represent one of her human conditions. In each one of them, there is a glimpse of who she is and all the phases of who she is as a woman… So there are elements of Mary in all of them, because we’re all human, we’re complex. We’re not one thing.”

For Bey, it was important to portray Black caregivers, especially in a time when American society can often ignore them.

“We take for granted that they’re always going to be there when something goes wrong,” she said. “We don't even think about how they replenish. We don't even probably think about who their families are outside of a nursing setting. And I think the pandemic revealed all those things. It was the underbelly of the healthcare system. And that is that these individuals, many of them are underpaid. Some are unprotected. Many of them are women. What does that say about our society, how we undervalue those people who bring a tremendous value to our lives?”

iii. “I wasn’t surprised”

Marys Seacole is debuting in Washington, D.C. during a critical time in the city’s theatre landscape, when many are questioning how the industry has been treating Black women. This reckoning has been going on for a long time, but reached a fever pitch when The Washington Post reported on how the Black actress Santoya Fields felt unsafe working on Arena Stage’s production of Toni Stone (disclosure: I interviewed Toni Stone playwright Lydia R. Diamond for Theatrely months before these allegations surfaced). The article shook up the D.C. theatre community. But Eric Ruffin said that as a former actor who has faced similar circumstances, he understood what the article was pointing towards.

“Yes, that article was shocking, but I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “It was shocking for me that it was actually told and that there was an actual article about it, that someone said this needs to be presented to the public at large. Arena [Stage] needs to be held accountable and other theaters that behave in that way should be held accountable.”

Mosaic Theatre itself has gone through similar allegations of unsafe work environments in the past. After Mosaic Theatre posted a response to “We See You White American Theatre” in 2020 owning up to its past racism, Artistic Director Ari Roth resigned. During an October 2021 press night for Mosaic’s first post-pandemic play Birds of North America, Managing Director Serge Seiden said the company was working to make theatre “more equitable.” In November of 2021, the Black director Reginald L. Douglas was named the new Artistic Director.  

Against the backdrop of so many internal changes at Mosaic, Ruffin knew it was paramount that he be able to create a safe rehearsal process conducive to telling the intense story of Marys Seacole. For Ruffin, this included having a creative team full of Black and Jamaican women, and having rehearsal times for six hours a day, five days a week (instead of the usual eight hours a day, six days a week.) Ruffin said these changes were instrumental in creating a safe environment. 

“I have felt more vulnerable and at the same time more empowered than I can remember in directing a play,” Ruffin said. “Some of that has to do with we’re back in the theater doing live theater. I want to be able to say that after the hiatus, there’s some things that have had to change. And here is our attempt to share with you the evolution of theater. So, how we take care of actors, how we take care of Black actors, how much representation women and Black women have in the American theatre landscape.”

Fabrique and Bey echoed Ruffin’s statements, saying they felt the rehearsal room was a collaborative space where they could be vulnerable in front of each other. Dramaturg and dialect coach Teisha Duncan helped inform all of the characters in the show, and created a space where Jamaican cast members could share family experiences with Jamaican patois. Intimacy & Fight consultant Sierra Young was given specific days to focus on intimacy coordination, assigning different colors to different parts of each actor’s body to indicate comfort or discomfort. The result, Kim Bey said, was a production in which she felt safe.

“I feel like the women in the cast, we have all found a respect for each other and honesty with each other,” she said. “If there is something that is not comfortable, I think we all have gotten to a place where we can address it.”

iv. “fallen nation”

Mosaic Theatre’s production of Marys Seacole is also arriving in a fraught political time in D.C., as a House committee subpoenas five Republican congresspeople as part of a panel investigating the January 6th insurrection. Both Eric Ruffin and Tina Fabrique brought up the January 6th insurrection during my discussions with them, both stating that the event felt very close to mind as they tackled a script that overtly addresses the legacy of white supremacy in America.  

“This is a really brand new day we’re living in right now,” Fabrique told me. “George Floyd and all of the situations brought us to a certain place in this country where racism, white supremacy, and all of that is brought to the surface like never before.”

The Company | Photo: Margot Schulman

Marys Seacole itself doesn’t mince words when it comes to the state of pure terror many Black Americans must live through on a daily basis. Drury calls America a “fallen nation,” and points towards the legacies of slavery in Mary Seacole’s life. In the show’s bravura second act, the Duppy Mary confronts the entire cast and audience, warning of the entire world’s destruction unless we all acknowledge America’s sickness:

And we will all burn, each of us all will burn

unless we accept it is the whites that is ruining that country.

That country was built by black people

and is we

we who deserve to inherit it from the misguided progeny that are eating

away at the founding ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s in these words that Drury writes her most daring and radical, concept: if Black Americans must corpse Blackness, must they also corpse America as it currently stands, too? This idea may ring controversial or brutally true, depending on the audience member. But for Fabrique, hearing these lines and understanding their perspective is a necessity.

“We need to accept what the situation has been all these years,” Fabrique said. “Any time you have to get an anti-lynching law passed, any time you have to deal with laws that keep you from treating another human being with no respect whatsoever, it lets you know that we’ve been living under something that needs to be overturned in a certain way.”

When I asked Kim Bey how she thinks audiences of different identities might respond to these lines, she was honest about letting the text of the play speak for itself.

“I don’t know how they’re going to land,” Bey told me. “I’m also respectfully going to say it’s not my problem, that it’s for the audience to—I think that’s what Ms. Drury is trying to do to the audience, to make them develop a point of view. I’m here to tell the story, and to invoke what manifests from a person listening to it. There are some biting words, and how a person responds to it reveals something about [the] self.”

The finales for all of Drury’s plays end in a space of open confrontation; she doesn’t prescribe ways to fix racism or America, but rather lets us stew in the devastation and potential freedom of acknowledging Black experiences in such a raw way. For me, watching Drury’s plays simulates the experience of falling into history, and instead of having a soft place to land, you still feel like you're plummeting downwards even after leaving the theater.

Bey sees the tragedy in the way that Drury ends her works, but also appreciates the openness to interpretation these plays allow, too.

“It’s just so unfortunate that we as women don’t—we’re so close,” she said. “We’re so close to coming together. And yet we don’t make it. There is something about the playwright leaving it kind of unblemished and funky, in a way. There’s glory, and yet there is funkiness, too.”

v. close horizons 

As someone who is non-Black and Filipino American, I’ve had to think hard about what my reaction to Marys Seacole reveals about myself. 

I couldn’t help thinking of my Lola, my grandmother who immigrated from the Philippines to the United States to serve as a doctor and nurse. I thought of the ways in which my Filipino family was teased in school for being poor and dirty, and patients even refused to undergo surgery with them because of our “dirtiness” as Asian Americans. How white nurses would tell my Lola that her homemade food stank and cover their noses.

I thought about how nursing programs keep American colonialism going in the Philippines, and how Filipina nurses are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I even thought about how because there aren’t enough nurses in Jamaica, NPR reported that the Jamaican government has started to recruit nurses from the Philippines to fulfill their stations.

It seems like no matter where Filipina women go in this world, they are required to care for others. But the opposite is also true: Fillipina women need care as well. At the end of her life, my Lola needed intense geriatric care because of her epilepsy and dementia. Once my Lola moved back to the Philippines, the people fulfilling that care work were also Filipina nurses. Marys Seacole, and the familial memories it conjured within me, reminded me of a harsh truth: all nurses will eventually need to be nursed. Who will care for the caregivers?

That question is the heart of Marys Seacole. There will always be someone in need of care, and someone who has to fulfill that grueling, compassionate, thankless work. Will power structures inevitably exploit the need for care work along the lines of race, gender, and nationality until women of color are forced to take on the brunt of this labor? Or can care work transform into something else?

By corpsing the roles Jamaican women have historically performed in the world, potentially causing the death of the Black “mammy” trope, Drury gestures towards a different conclusion. The dilemma of care work can be an awful burden, as Marys Seacole so frankly expresses. But Drury also points towards the idea that care work might become a sort of communal responsibility, a calling for the entire world to take care of each other. 

Mary Seacole certainly saw care work not as an onus, but as an adventure, a chance to do things that no one else of her race and gender could do at the time. Midway through the Marys Seacole, Mary recalls staring at ships going towards Britain, stating, “As their white sails disappeared over the horizon / I was never without longing to be aboard them / to see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance.”

These lines recall the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which state, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish onboard.” Like Marys Seacole, Their Eyes Were Watching God is about a Black woman telling the story of her own life; Hurston even wrote the novel in Haiti after a six month stay in Jamaica. The Black women in Marys Seacole and Their Eyes Were Watching God, despite being burdened by care work, go on epic adventures that carry them past the horizons they had initially imagined for themselves. “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net,” writes Hurston at the end of her novel. “Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

Re-reading those lines after watching Marys Seacole, I finally understood why disability activists use the metaphor “care web” to describe mutual aid. Like Hurston’s fish-net, care might not be a burden, but a set of interlocking relationships of reciprocal caring that form a community. Perhaps that’s what Marys Seacole itself is, a care web pulling the horizon of history onto its audiences’ shoulders and connecting us all. Who will care for the caregivers? Drury asks for it to be us, the people in Marys Seacole’s audience. Because we finally understand the sweat, sacrifice, and beauty that Jamaican nurses have given the world, we can at last give that care back in return. 

Marys Seacole plays at Mosaic Theatre in Washington, D.C. through May 29. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.