Myra Lucretia Taylor has a simple question for the group assembled behind an array of binders and laptops in the Goodman Theatre’s rehearsal room: Were Handi Wipes available in 1983? It’s important: In the scene she’s rehearsing, her character, Mary, uses one to clean her hands in disgust. She’s just found the lube used by her employer’s son, David, and his boyfriend. By the way, David’s family calls Taylor’s character “Nigger Mary.” Unpaid, she lives in a cabin on the estate with her husband, Elroy.
Mary, which the theater commissioned, may be rather more provocative than the usual Goodman fare. But the icy satire’s author, Thomas Bradshaw, was heartened by the response to a 2009 reading of the play as part of the theater’s New Stages series. “The audience response was pretty much a dream,” he tells me, arriving at rehearsal direct from a New York flight. “Everyone stayed around afterward, talking to one another.”
Not all those conversations were full of praise. “One girl came up to me,” he recalls, “and she was like, I got to talk to you! Why did they have to say ‘nigger’?” Bradshaw’s response? “I want people to really feel, and one of those feelings may be discomfort. I hope that another one is euphoria.”
“Theater has a responsibility to not be boring,” says Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, who commissioned Bradshaw after seeing his work in New York. “And it’s impossible to be bored by this play.”
As with recent attempts to sanitize the language of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the African-American New Jersey native views political correctness in the theater dimly. “It assumes that the audience is unintelligent, that they can’t have complicated thoughts. It’s a huge insult!”
The 30-year-old playwright, who studied at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman, has been winning accolades for eliciting strong reactions from his audiences. Bradshaw’s plays, which include 2007’s Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist (a senator’s secret biracial daughter), 2008’s Southern Promises (sex and death on the plantation) and 2009’s The Bereaved (a white lawyer drops dead from a cocaine overdose), have earned him a Guggenheim fellowship and brought him from downtown New York to London and Germany.
The German audiences proved a particular surprise. One state theater performance of The Bereaved mingled schoolchildren, senior citizens and a group of convicts released for the show. “The kids were fascinated. I’m not sure what the convicts thought, but the senior citizens were loving the play, turning around to give me the thumbs up. In the U.S. I wouldn’t put money on seniors being my most vocal supporters, but that was definitely the case in Germany,” he relates with deep laughter.
Mary’s director, May Adrales, who helmed The Bereaved in New York, takes a light approach to the playwright’s explosive material, asking her cast to approach it with sincerity and honesty. “We’re not creating distance or commenting on the insanity of the situation,” she explains. “So it’s almost blowing it up even more.”
The insanity is heightened, Bradshaw notes, by the fact that Mary is rooted in a true story. A New York opera singer approached him after a 2008 performance of Bradshaw’s play Dawn to tell him about a 1983 visit to his boyfriend’s childhood home in southern Maryland. “They had a maid,” Bradshaw says, “who they casually referred to as Nigger Mary, and it casually came out that her family had been serving his family for generations. People say, ‘This is outlandish.’ This is all true.
“So it’s not any sort of provocation for the sake of provocation,” the playwright concludes, adding that he’s simply drawn to subjects he feels theater too often doesn’t address. “I hate when people call me a provocateur, because it sounds like I’m sitting in my room thinking, What can I write about to piss people off today?”