When Tina Fabrique takes the stage in Marys Seacole, the Broadway actor and jazz singer is transformed into Duppy Mary, a ghostlike figure, clad entirely in black, who observes the action and bequeaths power to those who follow in her wake.
Her followers include Mary herself, as a Creole nurse practitioner, colliding with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War; the medical attendant (and supplier 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 all-but-invisible nurse’s aid, cleaning up after the elderly in a nursing home today. All are caregivers and people of color—often relied on, rarely seen.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Eric Ruffin, Marys Seacole boasts a brilliant ensemble cast. The play, a regional premiere at Mosaic Theater Company, closes Sunday, May 29.
“It’s the most sophisticated play I’ve ever been in,” Fabrique told me in a recent telephone interview. “Playing in Marys Seacole is a unique experience, partly because the character, like the story, drifts through time and space.”
The real Mary Seacole, she added, was a true Creole, also known as a “Jamaican Brit.” Born in Kingston to an Afro-Caribbean mother and a Scottish father, she was trained to be a “doctress” in the years before nursing was recognized as a profession.
Based in part on Seacole’s autobiography—published in England in 1857—the play expands on history through the role of the duppy and the many “Marys” that followed in her footsteps.
“In Jamaican culture, the duppy is the soul of a dead person,” Fabrique explained. “She’s sort of a ghost, but not scary. In this play, Duppy Mary is the spirit of Mary’s dead 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 getting the accent right. “The problem was that it had to be 19th-century Jamaican, yet understandable to a 21st-century American ear,” she said.
“My father was from Jamaica, but his accent was quite different. Luckily, Mosaic found a wonderful dialect coach named Teisha Duncan, based in Jamaica, who trained us on Zoom.”
Marys Seacole is not the first time she’s portrayed a real-life African American or Afro-Caribbean woman.
In New York, she appeared in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “I loved it because it allowed me to work closely with the playwright, August Wilson,” she said.
Her favorite singing role was Ella, a musical about Ella Fitzgerald. The role, which she created, was produced at theaters across the country over a period of seven years.
“I loved playing Ella,” she said, “because I understood her. I’m a jazz singer, and ‘scatting’—which is what Ella did and what I do—is what being musical is about.”
Her most influential role, however, was singing the theme of Reading Rainbow—the PBS children’s educational show—for more than 30 years. She first recorded the song in the early 1980s. A new recording was made in 2011, on new equipment, but otherwise nothing changed.
“For a long time, I forgot about it. But then the kids who listened to the song grew up. And suddenly, people were identifying me with this song that helped them learn to read!”
Although Broadway is her home, she loves performing in DC. I asked her to amplify.
“When DC audiences come to the theater,” she laughed, “they know what they’re seeing, and they respond appropriately. DC audiences are much more intellectual than those on Broadway, where those who can afford the seats are often less well informed about the shows.”
While she loves DC, she’s happy to stay in New York, where she’s lived in the same apartment for 36 years. “It’s in a part of the city that seems remote, close to City Island and Pelham Bay Park; in fact, it’s a peaceful outpost, yet easy to get to Broadway on the subway.
Marys Seacole plays through May 29, 2022, presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at 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, or go online.
The Marys Seacole program is online here.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
COVID Safety: All patrons, visitors, and staff who visit the Atlas Performing Arts Center are required to provide proof of vaccination to be admitted into the venue. Face masks that cover the nose and mouth are required to be worn at all times regardless of vaccination status while 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
Mamie: Amanda Morris Hunt
Merry: Claire Schoonover
Scenic Designer: Emily Lotz
Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander
Projections Designer: Mona Kasra
Costume and Wig Designer: Moyenda Kulemeka
Sound Designer: Cresent Haynes
Props Designer: Deb Thomas
Intimacy and Fight Consultant: Sierra Young
Dramaturg: Teisha Duncan
Dialect Coaches: Teisha Duncan and Jen Rabbitt Ring
‘Marys Seacole’ at Mosaic honors the courage of caregivers (review by Sophia Howes)