“Jesus is a trick on niggers,” says Flannery O’Connor’s character Haze in Wise Blood. Bradshaw’s Jesus-loving title character has a slightly different take: “Emancipation was a trick on niggers,” Mary (Myra Lucretia Taylor) tells her husband, Elroy (Cedric Young). Mary’s family has served the family of her employer, Dolores (Barbara Garrick), on this former Maryland plantation since long before emancipation. Now it’s 1983, and Mary and Elroy live in a cabin on Dolores’s grounds while Dolores and her husband, James (Scott Jaeck), casually refer to her as “Nigger Mary.” Oh, and Mary and Elroy are provided for and happy but not paid for their work.
Bradshaw, the 30-year-old New Yorker beloved by The New Yorker and making his Chicago debut with this Goodman commission, professes to dislike being called a provocateur. Fair enough. But that doesn’t keep Mary from feeling like a provocation. The play’s action is kicked off by the Christmas visit of Jonathan (Eddie Bennett), the boyfriend of Dolores and James’s closeted college-age son, David (Alex Weisman). Jonathan is understandably astounded by the casual racism at David’s house; Mary’s disturbed by the K-Y she finds in David’s bedroom.
Despite the fearless, all-in performances, Bradshaw and director Adrales seem unsure about the piece’s tone: Is this naturalism or absurdism? Some passages suggest the former, others the latter. The closing scenes, while cleverly subverting the audience’s presumed expectations, depart so radically from the form of what’s come before as to feel like they were written for another play. Mary leaves me eager to see more of Bradshaw’s work, but on its own it doesn’t do the trick.