Saturday, March 16, 2024

"The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" at Mixed Blood Theatre

It's been almost two years since Mixed Blood Theatre produced a mainstage play; The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is the first play since the departure of founding Artistic Director Jack Reuler, the first under new Artistic Director Mark Valdez. To which I say: welcome back Mixed Blood! This kind of risk-taking envelope-pushing social commentary, with a focus on accessibility and diversity of voices and stories, is much needed in our community. While their last play, an original called imagine a u.s. without racism, was an inspirational fairy tale that encouraged audiences to do just that, The Trial (as I'll refer to it) is a brutal look at the racism upon which this country was built. Specifically through "the mother of America," Martha Washington. Written by James Ijames, recent Pulitzer Prize winner and Tony nominee for his play Fat Ham, The Trial is an ingenious mix of storytelling styles, using fantasy, music, and pop culture in this wild exploration of history and present. The cast and creative team do an incredible job of navigating this tricky script and challenging themes, for a wholly successful, entertaining, and thought-provoking work. See it in the old brick firehouse that is Mixed Blood Theatre in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis now through the end of the month.

The play takes place on Christmas Eve in 1800 (hence the traditional Christmas music played pre-show) at the home of Martha Washington. Her husband, the first president of the United States, had died a few years earlier, and specified in his will that his slaves would be freed upon the event of his wife's death. She's in ill health and is cared for by one of these slaves, her half-sister Ann (these complicated family relationships an ugly part of our history). Ann seems to genuinely care for Martha, and the other slaves agree that she wasn't unkind, but still, they can't help but look forward to her death which will result in their freedom. The play then takes a turn and becomes a weird fever dream, from a game show to dance break to a slave auction (Martha the one on the market) to visits from other founding mothers and fathers, to an actual trial. It's wildly imaginative and hauntingly disturbing as it shines a neon light on the darkest part of the history of this country.

Martha Washington (Karen Weise-Thompson) and her
dear departed husband (Mikell Sapp, photo by Rich Ryan)
This play travels across years, genres, and locations, but if you let go of reality and just go with it, it's easy to follow along thanks to the clear direction by Pirrone Yousefzadeh (Interim Associate Artistic Director at the Playwrights' Center). The almost manic storytelling could veer into too much, but it never does in this production. That's also thanks to the incredible cast, who expertly walk that fine line of satire and humanity. It's a joy to follow the always hilarious Karen Wiese-Thompson as Martha on her reluctant journey as she goes from curiously compliant to outraged, the lessons never quite sinking in. Monica E. Scott in particular brings a grave humanity to her role as Ann, but also gets to play a little. Domino D'Lorian plays Ann's son (and possibly Martha's grandson) as a sweet little boy, until he's not. Rounding out the seven-person ensemble are Darius Dotch, Tolu Ekisola, Valencia Proctor, and Mikell Sapp playing the other slaves and so many other fantastical characters, each one more outrageous than the last, that it's hard to believe it's only the four of them. 

photo by Rich Ryan
The fantastical storytelling is aided by the design. The set is very realistic, the rough-hewn kitchen with a large hearth on one side, Martha's elegant bedroom on the other, separated by a hallway with several steps. But there's more to it than meets the eye, with hidden compartments and see-through walls. The sound design covers the gamut from period music to pop songs and modern sound effects, for a mash-up of centuries. The costumes go from muted period clothing to colorful costumes added on top of them to create a multitude of bold characters fully embodied by the cast. (Scenic design by Matt Lefebvre, costume/makeup/wig design by Zamora Simmons, lighting design by Karin Olson, sound design by Theo Langason.)

This play is a skewering examination of our founding fathers and mothers, as it should be. We cannot put them on a pedestal, as so many seem to do these days. Because even though they did many great things, they were also humans who made mistakes, were short-sighted, and ignored the needs of many. An unflinching look at our complicated history helps us understand where are, and how we can continue to make things better for more and more people. And to do it with wild imagination, outrageous humor, fantastical design, and brilliant artistry, as this play does, makes for a very entertaining history lesson.