“Jesus is a trick on niggers,” says antihero Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. The title character of Thomas Bradshaw’s hilarious, discomfiting new satire, Mary, says exactly the same thing about the Emancipation Proclamation. Mary is a black, middle-aged domestic servant, and, as she sees it, “Black folks went from one form of slavery to another. They went from being slaves to sharecroppers, couldn’t vote, then the Klan came along with their foolish violence.” The best option, in her opinion, would’ve been a return to Africa.
In front of her white bosses, however, she puts it differently. Sounding less like Marcus Garvey than a Reaganite conservative, Mary cites gangs, poverty, and teen pregnancies before concluding, “You’re not going to convince me that we better off than durin’ slave times.”
Mary’s ancestors must’ve felt the same way, because after the Civil War they chose to keep right on working on the Maryland plantation where they’d slaved for generations. Mary is still there in 1983, living under conditions eerily similar to those prevailing during the antebellum period. Not only does she do all of the cooking and cleaning for the owners, James and Dolores Jennings—she also lives with her husband, Elroy, in a small cabin on the grounds. Neither she nor Elroy can read. The Jenningses “provide them with what they need” in lieu of paying them and blithely refer to Mary as “Nigger Mary,” as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
When James and Dolores’s 20-year-old son, David, comes home from college for Christmas and sees the situation from the outside for the first time, he tries to convince Mary of the disgrace of it all. But she’s far more disturbed by his homosexuality. He’s brought along his boyfriend, Jonathan, and, though the pair don’t announce the true nature of their relationship, everyone figures it out. The way Alex Weisman and Eddie Bennett play David and Jonathan in this world premiere Goodman Theatre production, you couldn’t miss it from space.
While David’s parents wish he’d just come out already (“The dang homo hides his homosexuality from us!” says James), Mary is having none of it. She’s a deeply religious woman—the kind of Christian who can put up with all manner of injustice, up to and including her own virtual enslavement, but won’t tolerate the idea of two men loving each other because it’s a sin and that’s that. Believing she’s compelled by God to stop the sodomites, Mary first steals their tube of K-Y then persuades Elroy to shoot Jonathan in the crotch with a BB gun.
Like Bradshaw’s previous plays—notably Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist (2007), Southern Promises (2008), and The Bereaved (2009)—Mary owes much of its blunt comic force to a paradoxically bland surface. The action proceeds in short, static scenes. The dialogue is sitcom flat and free of flourishes. Both the jokes and the jolts are triggered by people saying appalling things in a conventional way.
Bradshaw’s deadpan tone also helps him pull the rug out from under us. In a flash-forward toward the end, we learn that Mary, with David’s prodding and Dolores’s permission, has learned to read after all and is attending college. Yet just when you think Bradshaw’s setting the stage for a heartwarming ending—open arms and open minds all around—he tosses in a final twist that calls into question the cherished liberal notion that education equals enlightenment.
In the published version of Mary, the playwright specifies a “realistic manner.” But director May Adrales, a frequent Bradshaw collaborator, doesn’t always obey here. Dominated by a glowering ancestral portrait, Kevin Depinet’s dining room set strikes the right stuffy note. But some of the performers, particularly Weisman and Bennett, sweat with the effort of conveying wackiness. That comes easier for Cindy McCain look-alike Barbara Garrick, whose tightly wound, self-awareness-free Dolores is a scream. Myra Lucretia Taylor is also effective in the difficult role of Mary, alternately winning our sympathy as the long-suffering servant and losing it as the fire-and-brimstone fanatic.