Miz Martha Washington: A Fever Dream For The Ages

Miz Martha Washington lies alone ravaged by illness and attended to by the very same enslaved people, whose freedom depends on her impending death.

Your Chicago Guide’s tickets for two to the press viewing of The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre.

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Steppenwolf Theatre opened its 47th season with the Chicago premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames’ fantastical play The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, playing September 1 – October 9, 2022 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theater. Directed by Whitney White, this fever dream about the dying “Mother of America” features ensemble member Celeste M. Cooper with Sydney Charles, Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Nikki Crawford, Cindy Gold, Victor Musoni and Donovan Session.

The recently widowed “Mother of America” lies alone in her Mount Vernon bed, ravaged by illness and attended to by the very same enslaved people who will be free the moment she dies. The shape-shifting fever dream that follows takes the audience deep into the uncomfortable and horrific ramifications of this country’s original sin.

Dizzying and fantastical, this skewering Chicago premiere from James Ijames’ daring voice puts the American myth on trial. 

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Production Photo by Michael Brosilow

Steppenwolf Theatre’s commendable commitment to amplifying black voices is front and center in this sardonic and at times campy production from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright James Ijames. From costumes to The People’s Court cameo to the ghost of George Washington, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington digs deep into the cruel roots of this country. Those roots cannot and must not be ignored, forgotten or dismissed, because it was build on the backs of enslaved people.

Disturbing, as most fever dreams are, the play toes the line between real and ludicrous, not unlike a cult horror film. It is highly entertaining, and I found myself swept up in its fast pace. Swells of audience laughter were frequent, but the comedy itself very dark. A 90-minute run without intermission, Miz Martha’s fever dream flies by, leaving the viewer if not stunned, then speechless. I cannot fathom someone walking away unmoved in one way or another.

The Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington would make for excellent required viewing for anyone looking to educate themselves on the subject of chattel slavery in the newborn United States.

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Production Photo by Michael Brosilow

The creative team includes Clint Ramos (Scenic Designer), Izumi Inaba (Costume Designer), Amith Chandrashaker (Lighting Designer), Manna-Symone Middlebrooks (Associate Director), Gigi Buffington (Company Voice & Text Coach), JC Clementz (Casting Director), Christine D. Freeburg (Production Stage Manager) and Kathleen Barrett (Assistant Stage Manager).

Playwright James Ijames received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for his play Fat Ham. He has appeared regionally in productions at The Arden Theatre Company, The Philadelphia Theatre Company, The Wilma Theatre, Baltimore Center Stage, Mauckingbird Theatre Company and People’s Light and Theatre. James’ plays have been produced by Flashpoint Theater Company, Orbiter 3, Theatre Horizon, Wilma Theatre, The National Black Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Definition Theatre and Shotgun Players, and have received development with PlayPenn New Play Conference, The Lark, Playwright’s Horizon, Clubbed Thumb, Villanova Theater, Wilma Theater, Azuka Theatre and Victory Gardens.

James is the 2011 F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Artist recipient, and he has two Barrymore Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play for Superior Donuts and Angels in America and two Barrymore Awards for Outstanding Direction of a Play for The Brothers Size (Simpatico Theatre Company) and Gem of the Ocean (Arden Theatre). James is a 2015 Pew Fellow for Playwriting, the 2015 winner of the Terrance McNally New Play Award for WHITE, the 2015 Kesselring Honorable Mention Prize winner for …Miz Martha, a 2017 recipient of the Whiting Award, a 2019 Kesselring Prize for Kill Move Paradise and a 2020 Steinberg Prize. James was a founding member of Orbiter 3, Philadelphia’s first playwright producing collective. He received a B.A. in Drama from Morehouse College in Atlanta and a M.F.A. in Acting from Temple University in Philadelphia. James is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University and a co-artistic of the Wilma Theater.

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Production Photo by Michael Brosilow

Whitney White is an Obie Award and Lilly Award winning director, actor and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the current recipient of the Susan Stroman Directing award, an Artistic Associate at the Roundabout and a part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Her original musical Definition was part of the 2019 Sundance Theatre Lab 2016 ANT Fest, and her five-part musical exploration of Shakespeare’s Women and ambition; Reach for It is currently under commission with the American Repertory Theater in Boston. She has developed work with: The New York Times, Ars Nova, The Drama League, Roundabout, New York Theatre Workshop, 59E59, The Lark, The Movement, Jack, Bard College, NYU Tisch, Juilliard, Princeton, SUNY Purchase, South Oxford, Luna Stage and more. Whitney is a believer in collaborative processes and new forms. Her musical discipline is rooted in indie-soul and rock. She is passionate about black stories, reconstructing classics, stories for and about women, genre-defying multimedia work and film. Past fellowships include: New York Theatre Workshop 2050 Fellowship, Ars Nova’s Makers Lab, Colt Coeur and the Drama League. MFA Acting: Brown University/Trinity Rep. BA Political Science, Certificate in Musical Theatre: Northwestern University.

Steppenwolf Theatre is located at 1650 North Halsted Street in Chicago’s Clybourn Corridor.

Tickets for The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington are on sale at steppenwolf.org and the Box Office at 312-335-1650.

COVID-19 Safety: for the safety of the artists and the audience, masks are required for entry into the building and must be worn at all times during the performances. Extra masks are available at the entrance.