NURSING ACROSS CONTINENTS
Kayla Meikle, stalwart in Victorian dignity and Caribbean matriarchy, addresses us firmly at the start of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s manic, sometimes chaotic play about the Jamaican Creole nurse, “doctress” and hotelier, who in Victorian times tended cholera victims, travelled to America and later to the Crimea. She met Florence Nightingale only once for about five minutes, and spoke admiringly of her, but in recent times it has been – for understandable sociopolitical reasons – modish to set them up as rivals. One was posh and white and educated and revered by uppercrust Britain, the other black (albeit proud of her Scottish blood which she often mentions), and taught her doctoring by a traditional Jamaican mother. She was never officially on the strength as a nurse with the British army, but earned a living as a provisioner and hostess for officers as well as aiding wounded soldiers.
But inevitably, given the contrast, this play joyfully gives us interludes of Nightingale scoffing at Mary, alongside other white “Karens” down the ages who disrespect her. It’s a time-travelling series of scenes where black female nurses and carers get devalued or patronised.
So far, so polemic. But it is good polemic, lively and engaging (though it badly needs a trim, and director Nadia Latif is far too indulgent to long static conversations). And the point is well made: many a woman of colour tends white invalids, elderly parents and children while sorrowfully kept far from her own. The money is still mostly in soft white hands, the blisters on black ones . And Seacole was a hell of an individual in anyone’s terms.
So it begins with Meikle delivering a witty, whistlestop account of Seacole’s childhood , unquenchable energy, total self belief and – not least – passion for travelling to new scenes and being in camp (the set is a series of curtains with envelopes and zips, half tent half hospital). Then in a quick change onstage she becomes a modern care home nurse, while a fussy middle aged white daughter and fed up granndaughter try to engage with a seemingly comatose granny. Who, of course, only comes to life when the brisk cheerful nurses – Meikle and Deja J Bowens – arrive to feed and clean her. In a later sketch the two nurses – one a nanny, her own child an ocean away – are being patronized by a whiney white American woman who just looooves Jamaica on holiday and had some actual “ethnic food” and heard reggae there. Eyes roll.
And so on, until the long, climactic, dramatically screaming bloodbath of the Crimea (lots of bloodied torsos and random heads) . “I am more of a mother to these men than their mothers in England!” she cries, and all the ghosts and echoes of the earlier encounters reappear, as do Mary’s own mother-issues . The old mother then gives a lecture on the “fiction of a merit based society” in the West where “they need us but don’t want us”.
And its a good argument, and true, and anyone who has had a baby in hospital, a parent in a care home or been tended themselves with Caribbean humour, gentleness and tolerance will find their heart go out lovingly to the Mary portrayed by Kayla Meikle. The supporting cast are a treat too, Llewella Gideon and, as the white women, Esther Smith, Olivia Williams and Susan Wooldridge. All three are expert shape-changers.
The content-advisory, by the way, mentions “Strong language,Partial nudity,Blood, guts and gore, Dementia, Defecation, Euthanasia,Strobe lighting, Vomiting, Gunshot and cannon fire, Warzone simulation, Childbirth and Alcohol use” But hey, that’s nursing for you!
Donmarwarehouse.com to 4 june
Rating. Four, just!