Cecilia Ananya, Teisha Bankston, and Jackie Price in Marys Seacole (Cynthia Levin/Unicorn Theatre)
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Marys Seacole tells the story of the titular (though singular) Mary Seacole, the 18th Century British-Jamaican nurse, businesswoman, and altruistic adventurer who worked to fight the spread of cholera in the Caribbean and treated British soldiers behind the lines of the Crimean War. She is a compelling historical figure, to be sure. But anyone familiar with Drury’s work (like the brilliant and challenging, fourth-wall-breaking Fairview recently mounted at KC Melting Pot Theater) knows that this will be no straightforward biodrama.
Seacole (Teisha Bankston) begins with a direct address to the audience, reciting dialogue that sounds straight from her autobiography. The scene is soon disassembled and what takes its place is an intricately interwoven series of scenes of figures from across racial, ethnic, geographical, and generational spectrums. The show features a cast of six actresses, nearly all of whom play a range of characters, though their roles are listed in the program are variations on the name Mary—Merry, May, Mamie, Miriam. (The exception to the multiple-role casting is Cecilia Ananya’s “Duppy Mary,” who is an imposing figure, looming in judgmental silence until a well-earned and emotionally impactful break late in the show.)
Jumping between eras, this ensemble (filled out by Amy Attaway, Jackie Price, Deanna Hurst, and Erin Viets) plays out an enormous range of scenes, from Seacole’s contentious but ultimately mutually reverential encounter with Florence Nightingale to a modern nursing home staffed by Afro-Caribbean immigrant women. While the narratives are engaging, the play is driven by its thematic power. Racism, colonialism (and its sinister, enduring legacy), motherhood, servitude, and the way health and healthcare permeate all of it as a complex, messy, sometimes downright ugly but also beautiful and, more than anything, necessary throughline. Drury does not offer clean lines between these themes, choosing instead to lay them in front of her audience and force us to make the connections, sit with their impactfulness, and grapple with our own reactions to it all.
The cast and director Brad Shaw navigate Drury’s complexities with deft grace. Bradley Meyer’s set is simple, allowing the scene to shift dramatically and frequently, but also makes the space feel appropriately expansive. Overall, Marys Seacole is a powerful, smart, and often hilarious portrait of the self-proclaimed “most impressive woman you have ever encountered” and the ways in which the themes that dominated her life have continued through space and time to still carry so much weight today.
“Marys Seacole” runs through April 2 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or visit unicorntheatre.org.