Seats were filled at the opening night Wednesday of “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” - or “Miz Martha” for short - produced by Ebony Road Players, Grand Rapids’ self-proclaimed black theater company.
This was a show that, from talking to director Randy Wyatt a month ago, was still very much a mystery. I wasn’t sure what to expect but, wow, was I blown away.
“Miz Martha” is grounding. It puts you in your place, as a white person, but makes you laugh as well. There is humor, but at its core it is not a comedy. It is a show that gives a voice to black frustration resulting from hundreds of years of oppression that still exist in many ways today. Not only was this a creatively, well-written show by James Ijames, but it’s led by an incredibly talented cast and director. Wyatt was sensitive to the subject matter of the show — the black experience — and gave his actors freedom to really play their roles to their best ability.
A historical fantasy, “Miz Martha” is set in the 1800s as Martha Washington (Kitty Carrico Carpenter) lies on her deathbed, in a home surrounded by her slaves, having a series of fever dreams. In these dreams, her slaves talk to her in a way they never have and they try to convince her to free them before she dies. But this is no begging and pleading. It’s in your face and loud. There are a variety of scenes that represent the many ways the slaves try to convey this message to Martha. There are six slaves total: Ann Dandridge (Lisa Knight), who is the “favorite” of Martha’s slaves and has a biological connection to her mistress, Davey (Eddie Stephens), Sucky Boy (Julian Newman), Priscilla (Quianna Babb), Doll (Nadia Groce) and William (Gabryel Shepard), Dandridge’s son.
As Ebony Road Players President Edye Evans Hyde said - and wanted to make sure audience members knew - this is “not just another slave show.” Meaning, the play is accurate in history and even jabs at some current politics and events but the slaves are not seen in their normal context as much. They play their slave characters, but then the slaves play different characters in the various scenarios.
For example, one of the most memorable scenes of the show is when Martha is put on trial. This scene has humor, but it is a serious symbolic representation of questioning the complicity of white people, even “one of the good ones.” Some of the slaves mention this in the show about Martha, who may not have been as bad as others, but was just as guilty of racism and complicity to slavery. While she may not have beaten a slave, she still enslaved people.
In the trial scene, William plays the judge, Doll is the prosecutor, Sucky Boy is the lawyer man, Priscilla is the bailiff and Davey is George Washington. All have various props to show that they are playing a different character, but Martha and the audience both are aware that it is the slave playing the role and are trying to send a message. The slaves do not completely disappear in their new roles, which you see through their expressions and sometimes sarcastic remarks.
Another powerful scene was when Martha — who desperately tries to relate to her slaves, but whom dismiss her because she really wasn’t an ally to them at all — asks Davey what his life is like. He responds with, “you don’t want to know.” She insists, so a new scene begins in which an auction is taking place. And on the platform is Martha, who is being auctioned off like a slave. They poke at her and make comments until she is crying out and running away.
The acting in the show is incredible. Knight showcases her ability to convey emotion and commit to a character. She never falters, never misses a line, and through her facial expressions and voice, she captivates the audience in a very moving way. Carpenter, in her own way, is also captivating to the audience. She plays a tough character, the odd one out with conflicting opinions, but she makes Martha relatable to the audience at times, which can be a tough thing to do in a show like this. Additionally, Stephens, Newman, Babb, Groce and Shepard are captivating in their own roles and their ability to play many different characters. Stephens and Newman especially bring the comedy to this show at the points where it feels needed the most.
Another character in this show is the set: SiTE:LAB. This is not a new venue for Ebony Road, as they produced “Detroit ‘67” last year in the same space. But this time was different. Wyatt approached the set asking what it could bring to the show, not what the show could bring to it. By doing so, Wyatt was able to use the multiple levels and various exits and entrances to liven the setting more than it has been in the past. In the game show scene, all parts of the stage are being used - the bottom floor and the two upper level rooms.
Another effect is the sound in the show, which should not be underestimated. The clever use of dark noises and music adds to the emotions and the unsettling nature of the play and we can really see how dark the plot is when the sound is added.
A downfall of performing at the SiTE:LAB venue is that the space is very open, so there’s echoing and sometimes the actors can be hard to hear because they don’t have microphones on. But at the same time, this makes the audience lean forward and connect with the raw experience happening on stage. We can hear the dripping of the water coming from a leak in the back of the room that makes it clear that this building is abandoned and not kept up with. As we sit in this decaying old school building at the corner of Franklin and Madison, one can’t help but reflect on the current gentrification of the city and how that connects to the themes of this play.
Finally, the best way to describe this play is how Wyatt said it a month ago: a “howl.” There is much laughter in this show, but you’ll see that it is no laughing matter. It is laughing through the pain, which is something black people have done since the beginning and continue to do.
This is a show that everyone should see — especially those looking for a play that digs deeper than normal history and normal entertainment. And maybe even moreso, if you’re expecting this to be just a “slave show,” you should definitely grab a ticket and prepare to be rocked out of your seat.
The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington
Ebony Road Players
415 Franklin St. SE
Through Sunday, Oct. 14.
Tickets at ebonyroad.org.