|Jessica Chance and Fedna Jacquet in Company One’s production of “The Emancipation of Mandy and Miz Ellie’’ in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.|
Caught under the weight of history
Lois Roach’s new play, “The Emancipation of Mandy and Miz Ellie,’’ was a long time aborning — 10 years, to be precise. Now being produced by Company One in the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, it started out as a short play celebrating Juneteenth and has since evolved, over the course of several workshops and staged readings, into a full-length work enhanced by music (Alvin Terry’s live and lively interpretive percussion) and dance interludes (expressively choreographed by Shaumba-Yandje Dibinga, artistic director of OrigiNation). Straining under the weight of all the add-ons, it has been stretched too thin.
The core story concerns a young slave, Mandy (Jessica Chance), who at age 5 is moved to a new household to serve a naïve Virginia bride, Miz Ellie Wilson (Elizabeth Rimar), recently married off to a much older man. They’re both displaced children in a way, ripped from the bosoms of their extended families and transplanted to an unfamiliar environment. At least Mandy has her strong mother, Cook Mary (Fedna Jacquet), on hand to guide her, and Miz Ellie hangs out in the kitchen as well, trying to sop up some of Mary’s wisdom. In handing over her child to be trained up, Mary sings a touching song, “I Send You,’’ in which she imagines “all that you could be/ Once this world is different, once you can be free.’’
Officially, that day awaits at the other end of Mandy’s childhood — the play begins in 1854 — but the chronology, leaping forward several years at a time, can be a bit confusing. One thing seems near-certain: The very young Mandy has some severe trials in store, despite the relative cushiness of her position compared to some.
Miz Ellie, who proves barren, takes a maternal interest in Mandy, all the while remaining oblivious to the inequities inherent in their relationship. (Roach seems to be suggesting that this essentially kind if imperious creature has been enslaved by the patriarchy that bred her.) Mandy is proud to report that even Mr. Wilson seems to enjoy her company. The problem is that, true to form and custom, he’ll soon be appreciating more.
Roach chooses to reconstruct this turning point without the perpetrator present — we hear only Mandy’s side of the dialogue — and it’s all the more searing.
But there’s too much filler surrounding such elemental scenes: an excerpt from John Brown’s last speech, whole hymns, even a dance rendition of the Declaration of Independence. Also unfortunate is the insertion of a kind of alternate narrator, the white shopkeeper Mr. Taylor (Brett Marks), who’s assigned the function of ombudsman, addressing the audience with a knowing roll of the eyes.
As Mandy, Chance is singularly adept at portraying the spaciness of a child still rapt and fidgety with wonder. And the play is at its strongest when it cleaves to Mandy’s point of view. She’s the one going through massive changes, and her transformation could use a tighter focus and more detail. Emancipation crept up on the slaves; many were intentionally kept in the dark. And what does freedom mean when you’re living hand to mouth? As the 12-year-old Mandy wonders, “How could we be free, and where would we go?’’
“The Emancipation of Mandy and Miz Ellie’’ poses that question, but doesn’t probe deep enough: Too many dramaturgical disruptions intervene. The play is halfway to being a musical (Chance, who has been with the project from the start, contributed the melody for “I Am My Own Woman’’), and maybe it needs to go all the way. As it stands — at what could be considered an advanced workshop stage — it still makes for rewarding viewing. The performers give it their all, even if their roles have yet to be fully fleshed out.