Founding Mother confronts her complicity in Steppenwolf's 'Miz Martha Washington'

  • King George (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), left, and Queen Charlotte (Celeste M. Cooper), right, play "Name That Revolutionary" with Martha Washington (Cindy Gold), center, in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" by James Ijames. The cast also includes Sydney Charles, back left, and Donovan Session.

    King George (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), left, and Queen Charlotte (Celeste M. Cooper), right, play "Name That Revolutionary" with Martha Washington (Cindy Gold), center, in Steppenwolf Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" by James Ijames. The cast also includes Sydney Charles, back left, and Donovan Session. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 
Updated 9/19/2022 6:36 PM

"The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" --   

Martha Washington has a lot to answer for, and the Black people she and her husband enslaved do their darnedest to make sure she does in James Ijames provocative "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" in its Chicago-area premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre.

 

Ijames, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his play "Fat Ham," tips his hat to Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in his wry and scathing dark dramedy that holds to account Martha -- self-described "mother of America" -- for her part in perpetuating slavery.

William (Victor Musoni) is among the interrogators to whom Martha Washington (Cindy Gold) answers in "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" running through Oct. 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre.
William (Victor Musoni) is among the interrogators to whom Martha Washington (Cindy Gold) answers in "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" running through Oct. 9 at Steppenwolf Theatre. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Director Whitney White's bravura production features fearless performances by a cast that includes Sydney Charles, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Celeste M. Cooper, Nikki Crawford, Cindy Gold, Victor Musoni and Donovan Session.

Like Dickens, Ijames sets the action on Christmas Eve during which the widowed Martha (a masterful Gold), like Ebenezer Scrooge, is confronted by her wrongdoings in the hope that she will recognize her sins and repent before time runs out. As it turns out, Martha has little time left.

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The action takes place at Mount Vernon, which set designer Clint Ramos surrounds with cotton plants, a reminder of the slave labor that created many Founding Fathers' wealth. Upstairs, Martha is on her well-appointed deathbed, where she's tended by her half-sister and slave Ann Dandridge (a quietly conflicted Crawford). Outside, the estate's enslaved Black people wait patiently for her death, upon which they will be free, per George's will.

Among those waiting is Ann's son William (Musoni), who calls Martha Auntie Granny for reasons revealed later.

The Black people enslaved by George and Martha Washington hold the "mother of America" accountable for her complicity in perpetuating slavery in "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Ijames.
The Black people enslaved by George and Martha Washington hold the "mother of America" accountable for her complicity in perpetuating slavery in "The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington" by Pulitzer Prize-winner James Ijames. - Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

The action unfolds as a 90-minute hallucination performed vaudeville-style and loaded with pop culture references (game shows, rap music and "The People's Court" all figure prominently). During this fantastical fever dream -- enhanced by Izumi Inaba's deliciously outlandish costumes -- as Martha defends herself against charges that she is complicit in crimes against humanity, she shifts from fear to anger to defiance. She insists to those she enslaved she's "done everything to make your lives better" by rescuing them from a "savage land." She rationalizes her failure to set the Black people free following the death of George (Clemons-Hopkins, who hilariously plays the dead president as a cross between Jay-Z and a pre-Kardashian Kanye West). As a woman, "what could I do?" she says, "I couldn't own a teacup."

Finally, she justifies her behavior in the way so many scoundrels cite their privilege and excuse their inhumanity. "It was the way it was," she says.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's no excuse.

• • •

Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650, steppenwolf.org

Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 9. Also 2:30 p.m. Sept. 28, no 8 p.m. show that day

Running time: About 90 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $20-$96

Parking: $15 in the Steppenwolf parking lot; limited street parking

Rating: For adults, includes strong language, mature themes

COVID-19 precautions: Masks required

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