Beyond the appalling absurdity of the concept that one human being can literally own another human being, and without even getting into the horrific traumatization that the status of being enslaved brings to its victims, the institution of chattel slavery also inevitably spawns a panoply of legal and financial complications for the slaveowner class. When a person inherits a houseful of furniture, those tables and chairs and cabinets don’t marry one another and produce children and grandchildren. But humans do, even when they are “owned.” And the terms of ownership can lead to knotty conundrums when an “owner” contemplates emancipating some of those slaves.
That was the state of affairs for the household of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington upon the death of her second husband in 1799. Martha had brought to her marriage to George a household of 285 slaves who had belonged to her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. But as a widow, she didn’t own most of them outright – not even according to the custom of the times. Two-thirds of these slaves (and their issue) were being held in trust for John (Jacky) Parke Custis, Daniel and Martha’s surviving son, who was only 3 at the time of his father’s demise. The other third (and their issue) were Martha’s own “dower share.” After her death, they too would revert to the ownership of the Custis heirs.
George Washington had his own slaves, and used some of Martha’s wealth to acquire more after they married in 1759. George, Martha and Jacky’s slaves all worked side-by-side on the same plantation for decades. Some intermarried and had offspring to whom both parents’ owners had legal claim. The “issue” became a genuine issue. To make matters even more convoluted, Jacky died at age 26, having already fathered seven children. The four of them who survived infancy thus had claims to the majority of the slaves who lived and worked at Mount Vernon.
In his will, George stipulated that the slaves he owned should be emancipated – though not until after Martha’s death, if he predeceased her, in order to keep the intermarried slave families together as long as possible. (How thoughtful of him.) And although the Washingtons held custody of the Custis family slaves, including Martha’s dower portion, they could not legally free them.
In real life, the widowed Martha Washington signed manumission papers for George’s slaves in December 1800, a year-and-a-half before her own death, and they were freed on January 1, 1801. According to a letter written by Abigail Adams, Martha’s motivation for setting them free early was that “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands.”
In James Ijames’ 2013 play, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, these knotty relationships are simplified to some degree, but the historical basis for the drama is sound. Ijames sets the events on Christmas Eve 1800, with Martha confronting (and evading) her role as a slaveowner while bedridden with a raging fever. Her actual slaves, plus numerous historical and fantastical characters all taking the form of black folk in her hallucinations, challenge her assumptions and demand their freedom.
In the production of Miz Martha Washington that opens the summer season of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival – its first since COVID-19, and its final season at Boscobel House and Gardens before moving to a new Garrison location – Taylor Reynolds directs, and HVSF veteran Nance Williamson is onstage the entire time in the role of Martha. Zany-old-lady roles are a specialty of Williamson’s. She brings a bracing edge of humor to a character who is fundamentally self-absorbed, self-pitying and resistant to change, even when her nose is being rubbed in her own faults.
The rest of the cast, all people of color, are called upon to play multiple roles in Martha’s waking hours and nightmares – except for Britney Simpson, sensitively portraying Ann Dandridge Costin, a slave assumed to be Martha’s own half-sister. Ann has been Martha’s lifelong companion, and the naïve Martha is wounded to discover that she craves freedom as much as any of the other slaves in the household. It is to Ann that Martha pours out most of her rationalizations for her own privileges, expecting more affirmation than she ends up getting, now that real freedom is in sight for the “owned.”
All the actors do exceptionally fine work here. Cyndii Johnson and Claudia Logan play sassy housemaids Doll and Priscilla, a sort of Greek chorus who act as the most vocal advocates for emancipation. The male household slaves include Brandon St. Clair as Davy, Ralph Adriel Johnson as Sucky Boy and Tyler Fauntleroy as Ann’s young son William. The ensemble members switch costumes and personas frequently, bringing to life the horrors inside Martha’s head, including her own husband, her rapey son and King George III as black men. The former First Lady is made to experience what it’s like to be sold at a slave auction, subjected to trail for her crimes and even finds herself a contestant on a game show.
Both in content and language, Miz Martha Washington segues from historical past to pop-culture present and back again with easy fluidity. But for all the modern references, the obvious literary framework, given the Christmas Eve setting and the series of spectral visitations, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s meant to evoke in the viewer a hope for a redemption arc for Martha Washington as heartfelt as that of Ebenezer Scrooge. Alas, this protagonist falls short, veering desperately between guilt and denial, dependency and even a little rebellion of her own.
Had the playwright ventured just a little further down the avenue illuminated when Martha briefly recalls her two children who died young, this might have become more her story, and she might have claimed more of our hearts. What we come away with, instead, is the message that all these enslaved humans keep telling her in various words and actions, over and over: “This isn’t about you anymore. This is about us.”
It’s hard to imagine a timelier play for the summer following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement than The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington. It’s a tonic that doesn’t go down entirely easily, but is ultimately healthy for us all to ingest. It’s also sprightly in its visuals and its pacing, consistently entertaining and often wryly funny.
Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. in the big tent with the spectacular Hudson Highlands view on the Boscobel grounds on July 6 through 12, 14 through 19, 21 through 26 and 28 through 30. A new production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest takes over on August 5 and runs through September 4. Ticket prices range from $20 to $175, with staggered seating to comply with social distancing protocols. You will be expected to show proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test upon entry. Visit https://hvshakespeare.org to reserve seats and obtain more information.