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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington
Mixed Blood Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Hairspray, Trouble in Tahiti and Service Provider and Beautiful - The Carole King Musical

Tolu Ekisola, Mikell Sapp, Darius Dotch,
Valencia Proctor, Karen Weiss-Thompson

Photo by Rich Ryan
There is nothing lamentable about the spectacularly staged The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. The play by Pulitzer Prize winning (Fat Ham) playwright James Ijames has rollicked its way to Mixed Blood Theatre, one of the first full productions there since Mark Valdez took the helm as artistic director following the retirement of founding artistic director Jack Reuler. If this show is an apt sample, Mixed Blood is in excellent hands and we can anticipate a lot more adventurous, provocative, and sharply mounted work from them.

The play is a dead serious piece of work and also uproariously funny. The Martha Washington of the title is just who you think she is: the founding "mother of our country." George Washington died the year before and now, on Christmas Eve 1800, his widow is in ill health and being cared for by a few of the hundreds of slaves she owns, those designated as "house slaves." Because George Washington's will stipulated that upon Martha's death, all of the slaves that had been part of their estate were to be freed, there are concerns that among their large numbers, there could be slaves who would conspire to hasten their mistress's demise.

Martha Washington inherited the customary "widow's share," or one-third of a husband's large estate, from her first husband Daniel Custis, who was twenty years her senior and died when Martha was only 26. Included in the estate were thousands of acres, mostly planted in tobacco, and hundreds of slaves to work those fields. Two years later she married George Washington, making the future father of our country a far wealthier man than he had been. Based on historical records, Martha did take heed of the worry that malcontent slaves would plot to do her harm, and she freed those she had inherited from her husband. However, her dower slaves (those she had brought with her as part of her dowry when she married George) could not be freed. Under Virginia law they were to be held in trust for Martha's heirs, being that those heirs were descendants of her first marriage and entitled to the share of their father's fortune that had passed through Martha's hands. Complicated, eh? And vicious when the estate in question is human lives.

The enslaved characters in Miz Martha are either uninformed or heedless to any law regarding dower slaves. They want Martha to set them all free right now. All but Ann Dandridge, who is Martha's personal caregiver, and who shares a dark personal history with her. It is notable that she alone among the slaves in the play, has a surname–she and her son William. In spite of always being relegated to the lowest class, Ann has remained loyal to her mistress. She chides her fellow slaves–Priscilla, Doll, Davy and Sucky Boy–for hoping that Martha will die today, even though her own experience enables her to understand their feelings. The women seem even more eager for Martha's demise than the men. When Sucky Boy opines "She weren't hateful," Doll immediately retorts, "She weren't righteous neither." Ann is gratified when Davy suggests they pray for the mistress, though their prayer morphs into an incantation that bodes danger.

Martha awakens from a deep sleep to find herself beset by a cavalcade of visitors and anachronous flights of fancy reflecting on her life and times. These include a noisy game show, "Name that Revolutionary"; a song and dance performed by Davy and Sucky Boy, wearing straw boaters and wielding canes; and visitors that include Thomas Jefferson in lounge lizard mode and luxuriously long blond hair; Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross sounding like a pair of valley girls telling Martha how, like, it isn't nice to own people; and Martha's son from her first marriage, Jack (John), though he'd died of cholera at Yorktown during the War.

In a particularly gripping sequence–one of the few that are devoid of laughs–Ann's son William gives in to Martha's wish to know what it's like to be him by placing her on a slave auction block, the other house slaves acting the part of buyers inspecting and manhandling her as if squeezing melons at the grocers before they enter into raucous bidding. Finally, Martha is put on trial, as the play's title promises. Doll becomes her non-too-committed defense lawyer, with witnesses including George, Ann, and Martha herself.

The play is extraordinarily well written. Ijames' smart dialogue blends insights into the misery suffered by those enslaved and the sense of privilege and entitlement held by even the gentlest of the slave-holding class, while drumming out the humor, albeit gallows humor, that is an essential salve in surviving adversity. While the play's premise is ficticious, the issues it addresses and injustices it exposes are deadly serious, and even today are far from resolved. Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh maintains a matter-of-fact sense about the fanciful business contained in the play, as if to point out that none of it is any more bizarre than the actual history that inspires it. The abrupt changes throughout Martha's ordeal are seamlessly played, without ever a moment's lag.

Karen Weiss-Thompson is perfectly cast in the key role of Martha Washington, using her raspy voice and blustery manner to strive for maintaining authority over her enslaved household even as she loses her grip on life, both physically and mentally. It is a tour de force on par with her glorious performance as Dolly Levi in Gal Friday's The Matchmaker some years back. Monica E. Scott makes a strong impression as Ann, credibly balancing her sense of loyalty toward Martha with the grief her enslavement has brought her over the years, and her affinity with the other enslaved people at Mount Vernon. At a crucial point she must make a choice as to where her loyalties will rest, and Scott enacts that scene with chilling certitude.

The remaining cast members function beautifully as an ensemble, all outstanding in their individual bits and as a team. Domino D'Lorion, Darius Dotch, Tolu Ekisola, Valencia Proctor and Mikell Sapp all are worthy of praise. D'Lorion, as William, wins us over in particular when showing us the innocence of his childhood, born into slavery yet with tethers to his master's family, and then acknowledges how those tethers dissolve.

Matt Lefebvre has designed a wonderful set that clearly establishes the mistress of the house's bedroom above, the kitchen working quarters below, and all manner of hidden and rolled-in places for Martha's fantasia to unspool. Zamora Simmons' has designed costumes and wigs with an exaggerated, almost cartoon-like quality that supports the playfulness that, in turn, allows us to embrace the play's underlying seriousness. Theo Langason's sound design is wedded into Martha's journey, and Karin Olson's lighting design helps to establish differing levels of safety and danger over the course of the play.

We know that in 1800, Martha Washington did free all of the enslaved workers she legally could–well, all but one, her personal care slave, whom she retained. Whether or not that was actually Ann is not clear, though records show that Ann Dandridge, a mixed-race woman, was born on Martha's father's plantation. The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington would lead us to wonder whether, beyond simple fear about the danger they posed to her, Martha might have gained insights by means of some inner journey, or perhaps the direct appeal of her household slaves, that prompted a change of heart about slave ownership, leading to her decision to free those slaves she could.

Whether or not Martha Washington's mind was altered by anything remotely resembling the events in the play, there are still, 204 years later, many minds that could do with some alteration fostered by an immersion in our history. As Ijames brilliantly shows us in The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, a foray into our history need not be a painful activity, and in fact can be highly entertaining–that is, until the curtain is down and you begin to think about it.

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington runs through March 31, 2024, at the Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-338-6131 or visit

Playwright: Playwright: James Ijames; Director: Pirronne Yousefzadeh; Set Design: Matt Lefebvre; Costume and Wig Design: Zamora Simmons; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Theo Langason; Props Design: Kris Schmidt; Production Stage Manager: Samantha Fairchild.

Cast: Domino D'Lorion (William), Darius Dotch (Sucky Boy), Tolu Ekisola (Priscilla), Valencia Proctor (Doll), Mikell Sapp (Davy), Monica E. Scott (Ann), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Martha).