Two deliciously maddening women in ‘Behold, A Negress’ at Everyman

In late 18th-century France, a former slave and her white friend tackle women’s rights, freedom for Black people, and a love that must stay hidden.

Thanks to Everyman Theatre for the opportunity to share my experience of the play Behold, A Negress directed by Tatyana-Marie Carlo. First and foremost, I applaud Jacqueline E. Lawton, the playwright. This play was wonderfully written, and clearly she is dedicated to the cause of pushing boundaries and bringing topics that are still often seen as taboo to the forefront. Even though this piece is set during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris, France, the topics are still very much relatable to the current days of modern America.

Hannah Kelly and Jessica Natalie Smith in ‘Behold, A Negress.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The two characters, Marie-Guillemine Benoist (played by Hannah Kelly) and Madeleine (played by Jessica Natalie Smith), were deliciously maddening. This play is mainly centered around the palatial home of Marie. The set was breathtaking and so amazingly done by Daniel Ettinger. From the crystal chandeliers to the velvet blue chaise lounge, down to the macaroons, I felt very much that I was seeing a wealthy home in the middle of Paris. Oh! and the costumes! I so wanted the red striped outfit that Madeleine wore toward the end with the very cute and chic hat. David Burdick, costume design, I need him to be my friend.

Hannah Kelly and Jessica Natalie Smith in ‘Behold, A Negress.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Madeleine, a former slave turned friend and intimate partner to real-life 18th-century painter Marie, was a voice that very much needed to be heard. This play tackles women’s rights, the freedom for Black people during the time of slavery, and a love that must stay hidden from the world. Though the topics are very much serious in nature, there were moments of laughter. Even if that laughter comes at the expense of being frustrated at the many “Karen” moments or the acceptance of these moments by Madeleine.

This play is a perfect example of when people want to be allies to others, but then they refuse to hear or truly acknowledge the people they are claiming to care about, and the passive nature of the oppressed to sometimes just accept certain behaviors as status quo. So many times during Behold, A Negress, I just wanted to scream because I felt what Madeleine was feeling. Even though Marie loved Madeleine and genuinely wanted to help, she often missed the mark because of her own vanity and her failure to truly understand her lover’s plight. She often would minimize Madeleine’s intelligence and her contributions. And if that wasn’t enough, she would simply choose to ignore what made her uncomfortable or what didn’t align with her agenda. So often she would claim to be for the rights of all women but then would gloss over her own contribution to a system that oppressed Black women. Even when Madeline tried to explain to her lover how the very thing she was fighting for would be diminished by agreeing to paint the ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie refused to see any other path than her own desire to be famous. And when Madeline chose not to fold and stood her ground, Marie simply pretended that the words were never spoken and still tried to celebrate the occasion.

This play also showcased that our voices need to be heard, even when others would choose to silence them. Madeleine often took a more passive role and that bothered me a little. I understand the times are the times, but Madeleine truly didn’t show any real passion about her plight until she shared her thoughts about the commissioned portrait of Napoleon. There were moments that warranted a little more emotion. For instance, when she is discussing her enslavement and her fear of being forced back into that life. My heart ached for what that moment could’ve been and what it ultimately wasn’t. Although there was a powerful quote that resonated with me because it is so completely relatable regardless of who you are: “When all the world around you hates who you are, you begin to hate you, too.”  Toward the end, you have a chance to witness that even though Madeleine had her fears and her own faults, she was strong, and she was more capable than even Marie gave her credit for. I appreciated being able to witness that bit of quiet strength.

Jessica Natalie Smith and Hannah Kelly in ‘Behold, A Negress.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

I believe this play should be experienced by people on both sides of the fence. Allies and those who need changes to be made in our society. It’s a way to allow a real conversation to take place and to truly start making some changes in our world.

This overall amazing play shows that even though love is a powerful force, it does not give you a blanket pass to understanding someone’s experience. You must work, you must listen, and yes sometimes you must acknowledge your own behavior in order to really be an ally to someone.

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

Behold, A Negress plays through February 27, 2022, at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets ($39–$69), call the box office at (410) 752.2208 or purchase them online. Tickets are also available for the digital streaming option ($20), which must be purchased by February 27 for viewing anytime until March 13. Box office hours are Monday to Friday from 9 am until 6 pm, and Saturdays from 10 am until 5 pm.

The program for Behold, A Negress is online here.

Best enjoyed by patrons 14+.

COVID Safety: Everyman’s Guide to Patron Health and Safety is here.


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