When Tina Fabrique goes on stage in Marys Seacole, the Broadway actor and jazz singer transforms into Duppy Mary, a ghostly figure, dressed all in black, who watches the action and bequeaths power to those who follow in her wake.
His supporters include Mary herself, as a Creole nurse practitioner, colliding with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War; the physician (and purveyor of rum) to a group of British matrons in the 19th century; the nanny, in the 20th century, caring for a white woman’s baby instead of her own; and the almost invisible nurse’s aide, who cleans up after the elderly in a nursing home today. All are caregivers and people of color – often trusted, rarely seen.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Eric Ruffin, Maryse Seacole boasts a brilliant ensemble cast. The play, a regional premiere at Mosaic Theater Company, closes Sunday, May 29.
“It’s the most sophisticated piece I’ve ever performed in,” Fabrique told me in a recent phone interview. “Play in Maryse Seacole is a unique experience, in part because the character, like the story, drifts through time and space.
The real Mary Seacole, she added, was a true Creole, also known as the “Jamaican Brit”. Born in Kingston to an Afro-Caribbean mother and Scottish father, she was trained to be a ‘doctor’ in the years before the profession of nursing was recognized.
Based in part on Seacole’s autobiography—published in England in 1857—the play develops the story through the role of the duppy and the many “Marys” who followed in his footsteps.
“In Jamaican culture, the duppy is the soul of a deceased person,” Fabrique explained. “It’s kind of a ghost, but not scary. In this play, Duppy Mary is the spirit of Mary’s deceased mother, explaining why she abandoned Mary and sent her to live in the white world. It’s very poignant.
The biggest challenge of the role, however, was finding the right accent. “The problem was that it had to be 19th century Jamaican, but understandable to a 21st century American ear,” she said.
“My father was Jamaican, but his accent was quite different. Luckily, Mosaic found a wonderful dialect coach named Teisha Duncan, based in Jamaica, who trained us on Zoom.
Maryse Seacole is not the first time that she embodies a real African-American or Afro-Caribbean woman.
In New York, she appeared in Ma Rainey’s black background. “I loved it because it allowed me to work so closely with the playwright, August Wilson,” she said.
Her favorite singing role was she, a musical about Ella Fitzgerald. The role, which she originated, was produced in theaters across the country over a seven-year period.
“I loved playing Ella,” she said, “because I understood her. I’m a jazz singer, and the ‘scatting’ – what Ella did and what I do – it’s is what music.
Her most influential role, however, was singing the theme to reading rainbow—PBS’s educational children’s show—for more than 30 years. She first recorded the song in the early 1980s. A new recording was made in 2011, on new material, but otherwise nothing changed.
“For a long time, I forgot about it. But then the children who listened to the song grew up. And suddenly people identified me with this song that helped them learn to read!
Although Broadway is her home, she loves performing in DC. I asked him to amplify.
“When DC audiences come to the theater,” she laughs, “they know what they’re seeing and they react appropriately. DC’s audiences are far more intellectual than those on Broadway, where those who can afford the tickets are often less knowledgeable about the shows.
Although she loves DC, she is happy to stay in New York, where she has lived in the same apartment for 36 years. “It’s in a part of town that feels isolated, close to City Island and Pelham Bay Park; in fact, it’s a peaceful outpost, but easy to get to Broadway by subway.
Maryse Seacole plays until May 29, 2022 presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Sprenger Theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington DC. For tickets ($68 general admission), call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, where to go on line.
The Maryse Seacole the program is online here.
Duration: 1h40 without intermission.
COVID safety: All patrons, visitors, and staff visiting the Atlas Performing Arts Center must provide proof of vaccination to be admitted to the venue. Face masks that cover the nose and mouth must be worn at all times, regardless of vaccination status inside the building. See Mosaic Theater Company’s complete COVID safety policies and procedures.
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by Eric Ruffin
May: Tonya Beckman
Mary: Kim Bey
Duppy Mary: Tina Fabrique
Miriam: Megan Graves
Grandma: Amanda Morris Hunt
Merry: Claire Schoonover
Scenographer: Emily Lotz
Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander
Projection Designer: Mona Kasra
Costume and wig designer: Moyenda Kulemeka
Sound Designer: Cresent Haynes
Prop Designer: Deb Thomas
Intimacy and Combat Consultant: Sierra Young
Playwright: Teisha Duncan
Dialect Coaches: Teisha Duncan and Jen Rabbitt Ring
“Marys Seacole” at Mosaic pays tribute to the courage of caregivers (review by Sophia Howes)