Set between the 19th and 21st centuries, Marys Seacole is an undulating exploration of Black women’s relationship with care-
in the last 200 years, how much have attitudes actually changed towards Black women in caring roles?
When I heard the Donmar Warehouse was staging Marys Seacole, I was very excited. Marys Seacole represents the second collaboration between Jackie Sibblies Drury and Nadia Latif since the overwhelming critical success of Fairview at the Young Vic in 2019.
As soon as I took my seat in the audience, however, I could tell this was going to be a very different kind of production. While the set of Fairview resembled that of a live studio audience American sitcom with its depiction of a realist American middle-class suburban home, the set of Marys Seacole simply consists of a blue fabric back wall – the same colour blue as an NHS nurse’s uniform – decorated with large zippable pockets.
Throughout the play, Tom Scutt’s simple (but effective) set design enables the rapid movements between time and space: from 19th century Jamaica, to 21st century Britain, to 21st century US, to 19th century Crimea. While the set remains the same, Lucy Martin’s costume design clearly highlights the shifts from century to century and continent to continent, and I was impressed with the speed of costume changes: before my eyes, one minute Mary (played by Kayla Meikle) was in her blue NHS scrubs, and the next she was in a heavy black crinoline gown.
These rapid shifts in time and space force the audience to maintain an active role throughout the play: what does this snapshot of two Jamaican NHS nurses caring for an elderly white woman in the 21st century, or two Jamaican nannies caring for white toddlers in the US, have to do with the story of Mary Seacole? The key themes that recur in each of these separate scenarios are:
- The power dynamic between Black women caring for white women. Both Mary Seacole (played by Kayla Meikle) and one of the Jamaican nannies (played by Deja J. Bowens) narrate stories of caring for elderly white women who viewed them to be inferior on account of their race. In the British context, one is unavoidably reminded of the welcoming of the Windrush generation to bolster British public services, and how this contradicts with the current deportation of Jamaican people – it seems that Black people are welcome in Britain so long as they exhaust themselves caring for white people.
- The suffering of Black women is overlooked. Throughout each of the scenes – from Jamaica to Britain, to the US, to Crimea – Esther Smith plays hysterical young white women who complain about how “tired” and “overwhelmed” they are. In each of these scenes, Mary (played by Kayla Meikle) devotedly tends to this young white woman while ordering her young Black junior nurse (played by Deja J. Bowens) to help and “stop being so lazy!” This is clearly an indictment of ongoing medical racism in which Black women are understood to have a higher pain threshold than white women, as well as the adultification of Black girls.
- The failure of both white and Black women to care for their mothers and daughters. Perhaps one of the most knotty issues explored, we see the failure of Black mothers to care for their daughters in the fact that Mary Seacole is sent away by her mother to be brought up by a white woman. On the other hand, we repeatedly see how white women’s children and elderly mothers are handed over to be cared for by Black women.
In recent years, the recognition of Mary Seacole has become tied with a certain self-congratulatory image of Britain: now we finally recognise the contribution of this Jamaican nurse, Britain must have far progressed from Florence Nightingale’s clearly racist refusal to work with Mary. However, the brilliance of Marys Seacole is that it pokes and prods this apparent legacy of Mary Seacole to show the ongoing racism experienced by Black female caregivers, as well as the ongoing knotty relationship of both Black and white women with the labour of care.
I couldn’t help, however, but to compare the final scene of Marys Seacole with that of Fairview. In both plays, seemingly disparate scenes snowball to a sudden unexpected climax in which the core themes are thrown at the audience. I have to admit that, to some degree, the climax of Marys Seacole felt underwhelming: despite Jessica Hung Han Yan’s lighting design and Xana’s sound design, I didn’t feel moved by the final guttural punch of the play. I felt intellectually stimulated, contemplating the various themes explored throughout, but not emotionally moved. Or, at least, I felt emotionally moved by Duppy Mary’s (played by Llewella Gideon) final indicting speech but felt the climax went on for too long after this point.
Overall, Marys Seacole is an important piece of theatre in its placing centre stage of the ongoing complicated relationship of Black women within the care system. Sometimes these themes feel too big to explore in just 100 minutes, and some motifs, such as a repeated subtle reference to Lady Macbeth, feel under-explored. However, for me, the brilliance of both Fairview and Marys Seacole is that they start difficult conversations. For a British audience to see a play about Mary Seacole that does not praise the nation as a multicultural haven in which Black and white people have equal opportunities but instead criticises the ongoing racism experienced by Black women in care, is, in my opinion, a powerful political statement. Hopefully, this conversation continues beyond the walls of the Donmar Warehouse…
Marys Seacole runs until 4 June 2022 @ The Donmar Warehouse Find out more here