With this post, I take my place among the great theatre reviewers of our time…..Sara, Critic Kate, and my playwright friend Amy. I have placed my hand on a vintage Playbill of Annie Get Your Gun and have taken the oath of office, the lyrics “Valjean’s Soliloquy.” NOW WE SHALL BEGIN!
On Sunday night, I saw My First Lady, part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s Founder’s Festival, written by David Koteles and directed by Jason Jacobs. The play is set at a tea party in a “quite warm” March 1801 with Martha Washington (she sneaks the whiskey in), Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Thomas Jefferson’s prissy Francophile daughters and their slave Sally Hemings. When I read the play description, I just HAD to see it! I’ve always wanted to get a feel for what it might really be like to be a First Lady. After going to the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C and seeing that the First Lady exhibit was all china plate settings and inaugural ball gowns, I needed to get that stale patriarchal taste out of my mouth.
As the audience take their seats, Sally Hemings (played wonderfully by Ashley Denise Robinson) is polishing spoons. An afternoon of pleasantries quickly turns into a boiling teakettle of tension when Martha mentions how she and her late
husband George pulled the teeth of their slaves to use as their own. It is spoken about so nonchalantly that my stomach started to twist and turn in disgust. While many in the room applaud Martha’s keen eye for good teeth, Abigail is horrified by the cruelty.
Dolly Madison (seamlessly played by Karla Hendrick) is the jewel of the show. She provides great comedic relief while not becoming as cartoonish as some of the other actresses. Each woman on stage is given her own monologue
aside from the party in a spotlight, except for Sally. Sally Hemings wants her place at the table of women in American history and dreams out loud of a time when a black woman can be First Lady (woot woot Michelle!) or even President. The ending of the play is subtle and numbingly powerful. The First Ladies process out of the President’s house and Sally is left behind to pick up their teacups.
My First Lady is the kind of play that leaves you with a lot to talk about after the show (I suggest not having that discussion with your mouth on fire over dinner at a Sri Lankan restaurant like I did). I believe there are times when the writing underestimates the audience’s ability to analyze and recognize themes deeper than tea and pastry. During the aside monologues, Martha Washington reveals her dissatisfaction with the way David Koteles has written her character. She is regretful that she burned her diaries and letters before her death, that her character cannot be built upon her own words. This is touched upon very briefly but made a great impact on me. I wish there were more moments like these in the play, where the First Ladies show their vulnerability to time. It leans too heavily on making the audience laugh than making the audience feel.
Overall, I highly recommend My First Lady! Check it out at the Metropolitan Playhouse located at 220 East 4th Street.Get tickets here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/311364