Arts and Culture

Last chance review: ‘Miz Martha Washington’ and the ghosts of slavery

A short play with a long name offers comedy, hip-hop and unsettling visuals to dramatize America’s legacy of injustice

actors perform on stage
The cast of "Miz Martha Washington" brings large questions of American culture to the stage, including hard topics like slavery.
Courtesy of Rich Ryan and Mixed Blood Theatre

Mark Valdez is the artistic director for the Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, and he knows that the theater has a long reputation for producing work looking at themes of social justice. “I think it’s kind of the thing that we do best,” Valdez told me.

“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” is the first “traditional” play produced by the theater since the beginning of COVID-19 — the theater’s last season comprised a series of small performance pieces set around the Twin Cities.

In some ways, the play is exactly what you’d expect from Mixed Blood, as “Martha Washington” looks at questions of justice and racial equality. “I think it just really highlights the wonderful talent that we have here,” Valdez said. But he points out that, in many ways, the play is likely to challenge audiences.

“It was the least ‘conventional’ show I could find,” Valdez said with a laugh. 

The play, written by James Ijames, looks at the end of Martha Washington’s life, casting the first lady as a sort of Colonial Scrooge. The play follows Martha as she is haunted by ghosts of her past, most of them connected to her participation in slavery.

The story unfolds through a fever dream of hip-hop scores, vaudeville-style sketches and even a game show hosted by King George III. If it sounds trippy, it is. 

The play examines larger conversations about America’s history of slavery, and how the impact of it lingers in modern times. Throughout the show, Washington acts as a stand-in for white America, and the play explores how slavery was foundational to the creation of this country.  

The show is funny, yes, with impeccable performances from its small cast. But its examination of power structures and the history of oppression is an uncomfortable, but necessary conversation. This is especially the case when its themes dip into the present day, inviting audiences to examine how much they still benefit from the injustices presented in the play.

The show also takes jabs at those who think they are doing good work for social equity, by showing how condescending their actions can be when they think they “know best” for a community, rather than listening.

The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” runs until the end of this weekend at Mixed Blood Theater — and I suggest you go, with the knowledge the play’s ghosts may haunt you too.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.
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