Martha Washington, held to account by slaves

In the play, Nancy Boykin, as a seriously ill Martha Washington, faces Aaron Bell.
In the play, Nancy Boykin, as a seriously ill Martha Washington, faces Aaron Bell. (IAN PAUL GUZZONE.)
Posted: June 18, 2014

In The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, Philadelphia actor-playwright James Ijames has crafted a superbly written, emotionally compelling, and morally challenging play.

How challenging? About halfway through his 80-minute one-act, I no longer wanted to review it.

The play begins at the bedside of Martha Washington (Nancy Boykin) some years after George Washington's death. His will provided that their mutually held slaves be emancipated once she died. So while the six slaves polish silverware, they wish for, and occasionally plot, the death that will set them free.

As Martha slips into a fever-induced dream, the remainder of the play consists of a trial - metaphorical and actual - for her crimes as a slaveholder: extortion, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment, assault and battery.

Frail, 70, dressed in a thin nightgown, Martha Washington presents a hard target to indict, despite her guilt as a slaveholder. It's difficult to watch as the six provoke, humiliate, threaten, and harass "the mother of the country," rightfully if not righteously, and challenge the audience not to sympathize as she sometimes cowers in fear.  

The play's structure resembles that of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, with visitors (Betsy Ross, Abigail Adams, Martha's son John Custis) providing advice or reenacting scenes from her past. Ijames' script includes a number of humorous scenes and transitions, notably "Name that Revolutionary," a raucous game show hosted by King George III. A pimp-playing George Washington (Gene Daughtry, Jr.) draws laughs at his wife's trial, while Thomas Jefferson (Steven Wright) performs a comedic bit of dental exorcism on the nation's ills.

Director Ed Sobel rightly avoids straying far from the play's somber, serious themes, letting us laugh as respite rather than reprieve. His cast of seven excels at characterizations and deft transitions, one moment cackling through a joke, the next condemning with a bitter verdict.

We are never made comfortable in the world of this play, which looks dead-on at America's original sin. It challenges by chasing down the guilt of all involved, even the most hallowed and revered of founders. This exceptional new work will have legs to run on for as long as America exists.


THEATER REVIEW

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington

Presented by Flashpoint Theatre Company through June 29 at the Off Broad Street Theater, 1636 Sansom St.

Tickets: $22-$25. Information: 267-997-3312 or www.flashpointtheatre.org

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