Marcus Gardley's quick reaction to the latest outrages of systemic racism seeks answers in colonial Virginia.
Negro Mary, the fascinatingly self-preserving character at the center of Marcus Gardley’s new play, doesn’t much care for sweets, she mentions in a tossed-off remark that quickly becomes pointed: “I prefer things raw.”
It doesn’t get much rawer than Gardley’s new piece, for better and worse. Gardley began writing An Issue of Blood just a few months before its premiere, as a response to the police-related deaths of black men like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and the protests they sparked in Ferguson, Staten Island and around the country. Victory Gardens artistic director Chay Yew, displaying admirable trust in his playwright, announced in January that the new work-in-progress would take the place of a previously announced premiere by Gardley in the spring slot.
The product now onstage at VG probably isn’t in its final form, at least not if Gardley wants it to have a life beyond this moment; perhaps he’s content to share it with us in this moment, in which case how lucky for us to see it brought to life by actors like Cleavant Derricks, E. Faye Butler and Lizan Mitchell in all its stark, savvy, heartfelt and messy ardor.
That said, Gardley’s 17th-century story offers nearly as many moments of confusion as beauty. For the first 30 or so of the production’s 90 minutes, I struggled to figure out the nature of what Gardley is doing, as a married pair of black indentured servants in 1676 Virginia (Butler and Derricks) trade light (and heavy) banter about an impending field hands’ revolt in language that regularly veers into modern vernacular.
The reveal that their young master who’s getting married this day, John Israel (Tosin Morohunfola), is himself a free black man and that his intended is an Irish lass (Eleni Pappageorge) brings new shadings to the proceedings. Similarly, Derricks’s Dozens Goode frets about impending legislation that would take away the promise of black indentured servants’ freedom and make them slaves for life—but by the year in which Gardley tells us his play is set, that detestable action was said and done.
It’s not until the well-dressed John Israel has a first run-in with a white constable (Steve O’Connell) who refuses to believe John Israel is who he says he is, demanding his “papers, please,” that Gardley’s gambit begins to show itself. The playwright is essentially taking samples from 500 years of systemic racism in the so-called New World and mixing them together in an attempt to trace the disease back to its point of origin. The field hands’ uprising is a version of the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion; tobacco farmer John Israel floats the idea of mass-marketing his product as cigarettes.
Where Gardley and Yew could improve is mostly in the early going, giving us more of a clue that the show is aiming for parable or allegory rather than satire. On opening night, the jokier linguistic bits in the exchanges among Butler, Derricks and Morohunfola read to much of the audience as straight comedy; the skilled actors misfired by barreling through their exposition and letting it be buried by laughs.
Izumi Inaba’s costumes also include some anachronistic elements once you start to look for them. And Mitchell’s Negro Mary, John Israel’s mother and a shrewd survivor, gets a mid-evening monologue that transforms her from ice queen to folk hero, staking her claim as both the descendant of African royalty and the first Negro woman to reach the colonial shore. A stirring final tableau further establishes Mary as the foremother of African-American mothers—while soberingly reminding us of all the trauma that role will entail.
Victory Gardens Theater. By Marcus Gardley. Directed by Chay Yew. With E. Faye Butler, Cleavant Derricks, Lizan Mitchell, Tosin Morohunfola, Steve O’Connell, Eleni Pappageorge. Running time: 1hr 35mins; no intermission.