BY HELEN PARSHALL — The stage is somewhat sparse, simply a bed, a table and some chairs. A rollicking march plays over the speakers, reminiscent of the kinds of colonial plays one might attend in middle school. The atmosphere is cheerful, and the audience is chattering quietly — a contrast to the fevered story they’re about to see.
On the walls are portraits, but the softened lighting makes it hard to see many details. One of the paintings appears to have been of George Washington, but the canvas is mostly rolled up to reveal behind him a portrait of what seems to be an African American woman.
The stage is set for “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” Ally Theatre Company’s first production in their new residence at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, a short drive away from Washington, D.C.
The story takes place almost entirely at the founding First Lady’s bedside. Now widowed, the feverishly ill Martha Washington is at the mercy and care of her slaves — all very much aware that when she dies, George Washington’s will stated that they will be freed.
Washington falls unconscious and the play unfolds through the lens of her hallucinations and dreams, teasing out themes from Washington’s family history to the contemporary history of the United States.
Author James Ijames had the idea for the “Miz Martha” script when researching for a different piece about George Washington. After stumbling across a passage that stated that Martha Washington had freed their slaves before she died, he was intrigued and followed the thread and found a series of letters from Mary Cranch.
“She’s sort of the Wendy Williams of the colonial period,” joked Ijames. “She knew everyone’s business, and she was writing these letters back and forth to Abigail Adams about how Martha thought her slaves were going to kill her and had moved into the attic. And that was just delicious, and I wanted to write about it.”
Ijames played with the idea of constructing the narrative as a ‘whodunnit’ style of mystery, but ultimately landed on the fever dream as a way to have fun with the darker themes of the play.
“This has been a dream almost three years in the making for me,” said Ty Hallmark, the founding and producing artistic director of Ally Theatre Company. “As soon as I knew what the vision of our theatre company was going to be, there was no question in my mind that this script would be our first production.”
“I was going through Facebook, and a friend had posted something about the Philadelphia play and the picture of Martha sitting in her bed with William looking over her that caught my eye,” continued Hallmark. “From the title and byline and everything, I knew I needed to see this play, and so I called Valerie [Fenton] and we hit the road.”
Hallmark and Fenton felt strongly that “Miz Martha” was a story that needed to be brought to Washington, D.C. and over the next years, the work unfolded.
“One of my jobs is listening and really reaching into the community and engaging with members,” said Fenton, Director of Community Engagement for Ally and a longtime resident of Hyattsville. “We’re the new kids on the block, and I really think it’s a testament to what we’re trying to do in Prince George’s County. We meet with a lot of businesses and elected officials and take a lot of the conversations back with us.”
“It’s also just so different watching it now that the world is different,” said Ijames. “I think I was a lot more hopeful about the world when I wrote this.”
The comedy nonetheless resonates among audiences.
“I think you can tell more truth by doing something like this. We know that none of this is real, but the ideas are real and it’s much more educational that way,” said Paige Gold, a Virginia resident who drove up to see the Sunday matinee and stayed for the talkback with Ijames and the cast.
At the talkback, the actors shared their experiences learning the history of the play — most notably that all of the play’s slave characters were based off real slaves who lived at Mount Vernon.
“I was very empowered by our visit [to Mount Vernon],” said Ivana ‘Tai’ Alexander, managing director of Ally Theatre Company, and the actor portraying Doll, one of Martha Washington’s slaves. “It was said during the tour that Doll held almost every job on the plantation and … there was a resourcefulness in Doll. She really learned how to work the system and make it work for her family.”
“In coming back to rehearsals I drew on that strength I saw in her and some of that grit,” continued Alexander.
Other actors reported similar feelings of connection to their characters. For Taunya Ferguson, she was drawn to the “considerable steel” in the history of her character Priscilla.
“Priscilla had nine children. … She had a husband who she had to live separately from their entire marriage, and essentially was a single mother most of the time,” said Ferguson.
“When we found out we were really going to do the play, I started doing a lot of reading about Martha Washington,” said Jane Petkofsky, who portrays the titular character. “You can’t really play a character if you can’t find their humanity, and she really was a good person in as far as that went for the time.”
“From twenty-first century eyes, however, the whole story is appalling,” continued Petkofsky. “The way I came down after all of the reading and doing this play is that nothing excuses what was perpetrated on a population in this country.”
The mission of Ally Theatre Company, embodied by this first production’s foray into history, is deceptively simple: elevating “ voices unheard” and peering into “spaces unseen.”
The work, however, encompasses much more than those four words.
“I want Ally Theatre Company to be a mirror to reflect back to the community,” said Hallmark. “It’s really important that we engage with the community in Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and the Route One Gateway Arts District because I want them to feel represented and have ownership in the work.”
“While we are a professional theater company, I want people to feel like this is their community’s theater,” continued Hallmark. “I want to understand what their stories are, what their backgrounds are, and what they want to see on our stage so we can make that happen.”
The name of Ally Theatre Company reflects their mission of storytelling as a partnership process. They seek to use the stage as a platform to transform social issues into community-driven conversations.
“One of the biggest milestones for us so far has been our partnership with Joe’s Movement Emporium,” said Alexander. “Joe’s has a long history of work in the community around using the arts to drive community involvement, engagement and participation. I think Ally will be able to bring a lot by being a part of that and part of this community.”
“You know, we’re trying to build not just a theater company but a movement in our community and the D.C. area at large,” said Hallmark. “I really believe that theater has the power to change lives by provoking conversations that are important and life-changing, and I hope Ally Theatre can be a part of that.”
“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 but discount tickets are available. *Please note there are no performances May 4, 5, 6, or 7.