curtain call

A first lady fever dream scorches the stage at Chicago’s Steppenwolf

Miz Martha Steppenwolf
The cast of ‘The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest openings on Broadway and beyond.

The Rundown:

A renewed interest in our country’s formative years unearths itself on stages across the country. Broadway soon welcomes an all-female/nonbinary production of 1776, the Tony Award-winning musical about our founding fathers reimagined through the creative lens of co-directors Diana Paulus and Jeffery L. Page. And in Chicago, Steppenwolf presents playwright James Ijames’ The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, a takedown of the original first lady as seen through a time-jumping kaleidoscope.

Ijames spent eight years working at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center, and it was here that he first gained interest in Washington’s relationship with her slaves. While the president declared the manumission of his slaves upon his death, Martha made no such promise of those part of her dower share — 84 inherited slaves from her first husband Daniel Park Custis.

“I found a letter between Abigail Adams and Mary Cranch where they were discussing that Martha thought that her slaves were trying to kill her,” Ijames said. “And I was like, ‘That’s spicy.’ And I thought that would make a good play.”

Related: How James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-Winning ‘Fat Ham’ Flips the script on ‘Hamlet’

No Tea, No Shade:

Miz Martha Steppenwolf
(l to r) Victor Musoni, Sydney Charles, Cindy Gold and Donovan Session in ‘The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

A two-dimensional façade of Mount Vernon rises at the beginning of Miz Martha to reveal the first lady (Cindy Gold) with a hacking cough, attended to by Ann Dandridge (Nikki Crawford) — both slave and half-sister. The cringe-worthy revelation is one of many resonating moments as the dynamic ensemble reveals the multitudinous layers of systemic racism baked into our country’s DNA. White folks may draw comparisons to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Ijames uses the form, not as a morality play but rather to dismantle our whitewashed history.

“The moment Martha enters a dream, I felt I could do whatever I wanted,” Ijames said. “I’m a true disciple of Suzan Lori Parks and the sense that the American mythos is up for dismantling as a Black artist. Like, it’s actually my responsibility to go, ‘Yeah… we’re gonna break this up a little bit.’”

“Martha was a pimp. She had like three hundred cats working for her for free man. Picking all that cotton…for…free. She was all like ‘Slaves betta have my cotton!’ Pimpin’ your honor.” — The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington

Director Whitney White keeps the intermissionless pace brisk, employing stepping and other percussive moments, along with Ijames’ scripted laughter, which is “not light or fun,” according to the playwright’s notes. “It’s more like showing one’s teeth. Especially in the case of the slaves. Their laughter is hostile. Loud! Laughter is a weapon.”

When George Washington shows up (a captivating Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Hacks) speaking with a “Southern Urban Dialect” — “think T.I. or André 3000 or CeeLo Green. (If you don’t know them… well…),” as Ijames notes, for a scene straight out of The People’s Court, the ghostly apparition calls it like he sees it:

“Martha was a pimp. She had like three hundred cats working for her for free man. Picking all that cotton…for…free. She was all like ‘Slaves betta have my cotton!’ Pimpin’ your honor.”

It doesn’t take long before the first lady’s true colors reveal themselves. “Let me speak. I’m being treated like a common criminal for what? For bringing you from a horrible savage land into the light of civilization!,” she exclaims. “I have been good! I have been kind! Where would any of you be without me? You Cunning, Resentful, Ungrateful—”

Ijames stops short of the n-word, noting in the script, “Incoming like a bomb…. she’s gonna say the n-word but why actually say it… see where it got Paula Deen.”

Let’s Have a Moment:

Miz Martha Steppenwolf
(l to r) Cindy Gold, Celeste M. Cooper and Sydney Charles in ‘The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

In a precursor to the women’s suffrage movement, Betsy Ross (Celeste M. Cooper) and Abigail Adams (Sydney Charles) present Martha with an opportunity to recognize a parallel between slavery and her own limitations as a woman in a patriarchal society.

“You’re free now! You have permission to do whatever you want!” says Betsy. “What’s that feel like?… to be free?”

“It feels… it feels correct,” says Martha. “It’s the most natural of feelings.”

The Last Word:

Miz Martha Steppenwolf
The cast of ‘The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington.’ Photo by Michael Brosilow

As the midterm elections approach, divisiveness looms like a dark cloud. Queer voices — James Ijames among them — provide an opportunity for reflection to transform into action. By subverting stereotypes, the playwright positions the audience in a position of awareness, but how we respond to that awareness is the power of live theater.

“There’s nothing you could do in this space that is incorrect,” says Ijames of one’s theatergoing experience. “Your experience is correct. If you have an emotional response to something, acknowledge it, embrace it, cry, laugh, whatever it is, but never read it is failure and don’t let other people around you frame it as failure.”

“And if there is a moment in which you have a visceral experience of failure, examine that to ask yourself, “What’s actually happening?” If your response is that you feel like you’re doing something wrong by watching something, then there needs to be an examination of that. Where is that coming from? What is the lineage of that feeling?”

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington plays at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre through October 9, 2022.