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Mad Breed: A View of a Teenaged John Wilkes Booth

On May 4, 2008, the Dresser ventured out to Mt Rainier, Maryland, to see Jacqueline Lawton's new play Mad Breed, commissioned, developed, and produced by Active Cultures Theatre in their Maryland Focus Initiative. The Dresser was lured by the subject matter which centers around the family of John Wilkes Booth when Booth was just turning thirteen (more on this interest later) and by the new play's able director Juanita Rockwell, who happens to be a good friend of this sassy critic (full disclosure here).


What the Dresser hadn't been prepared for was that Joe's Movement Emporium, the venue of the play, is only a few blocks around the corner from Thomas Stone Elementary School, where the Dresser attended part of third and all fourth grades. She hadn't been on that section of 34th Street since she was a little girl and wow, that long, hilly street of charming little bungalows looked waay smaller now versus when she walked it at ages eight and nine from Rhode Island Avenue to the school. The Dresser wonders if critics are influenced by these personal encounters on the way to review a new production. If so, the Dresser walked into Joe's feeling like she belonged in the neighborhood.

Another aspect of what the Dresser liked about this play is that it was encouraged by the Active Cultures Theatre artistic director Mary Resing to explore an historic subject that plays into the politics about how people of diverse backgrounds and cultures get along today. Mad Breed is about Maryland's racial past. The story focuses on John Wilkes' (or Wilkes as he preferred to be called) brother Edwin who falls in love with the black woman Adah Francois. The character of Francois is based on the legendary actor and poet Adah Isaacs Menken. Although Menken knew Edwin Booth as a fellow Thespian, the love story is Lawton's invention.

Still, that doesn't subtract from how unconventional the family of Wilkes was in real life and the play reflects this. Junius Brutus Booth, the renowned actor and patriarch whom we do not see on stage in Mad Breed but hear a lot about, is about to marry the mother of their ten children. (Wilkes is their ninth child.) This marriage is occurring 25 years after Junius eloped with Mary Ann Holmes to Maryland and abandoned his first wife and their only child in London. In Bel Air, MD, Junius and Mary Ann raised their brood on an organic farm, eating vegetarian meals, refusing to allow animals to be killed, and inviting their slaves to their dinner table. The Dresser hadn't known all this about the family of Lincoln's assassin and was left wondering how could such a well-raised son in a family who didn't believe in killing or slavery murder a president upholding the tenets of freedom and equality for all men?

In the middle of writing this review, the Dresser met in Annapolis with some poets who are long time pals of hers to celebrate her birthday and that of Jim Beall's. In the course of swapping stories about what each of us were doing lately, the subject of the Booth family arose. Jim Beall said, "Have you heard my story about my distant relative John Beall who was executed for being a Confederate spy?" "Well, no," said the Dresser, "tell me more." It turns out that John Wilkes Booth and John Beall were fast friends ever since they attended the hanging of the militant Abolitionist John Brown, that Booth pleaded with Lincoln to pardon his friend Beall, believed that Lincoln was going to grant that pardon and when he didn't, Booth carried out the assassination. Of course the story is more complicated than this, but this aspect of why Booth killed Lincoln has received considerable press in recent times.


What Mad Breed does is raise questions about who John Wilkes Booth was and how he could be such a misfit in his family that was not like any others of that time. To be fair though, the Dresser needs to reiterate that the play centers on Edwin Booth and his deep love for a black woman playwright and actor. Furthermore, Wilkes is just turning thirteen and he is full of himself, having just joined a secret society. Oops, the Dresser is still wandering into that will-the-real-John-Wilkes-Booth-please-stand-up grind.

Without much trouble to substantiate this, one could say Mad Breed is really the story of Adah Francois. Anastasia (Stacey) Wilson cuts a commanding figure as Adah. As the play opens, the stage divides between Edwin (Danny Gavigan) and Adah who occupy separate times and places. Edwin implores Adah in a letter to come to him in his hour of need. He is about to play Shakespeare's Hamlet, a role he has long coveted, and he is beside himself given what his brother has done. Adah, who has long ago fled the United States for England, is well established and respected, something she could never hope for in the U.S. When the next scene occurs, we see Adah being booted out of the minstrel show she has been the playwright for as well as an actor. More interestingly she had been doing this as a man, but her colleague (played by Lee Liebeskind) has outed her accidentally and the show is in danger of being closed down by the authorities since women were prohibited from engaging in such activities. So Adah has to run and decides to take a train to New York. However, she has missed the last train and this is how she meets Edwin who takes her home to his father's farm, promising he will take this stranger whom he believes is a man back to the train the next day. Almost immediately the chemistry occurs between Edwin and this stranger and when he finds out she is a woman, he is forever hooked.

The tension of this play revolves around this forbidden white-black relationship for numerous reasons. Edwin's sister Asia (Amanda Thickpenny) has a frivolous friend named Blanche (Kristen Egermeier) who has marked Edwin for marriage though he knows nothing about this. Asia, although being pursued by Edwin's friend John Sleeper Clarke (also played by Lee Liebeskind), takes an immediate romantic liking to the stranger and, of course, is upset to find out that he is a she. Wilkes is vindictively angry with Edwin for falling for a "darkey" and later he apologizes for that disparaging label, but only because Asia insists and because Wilkes at heart is a gentleman doing what is politic. What redeems Adah for everyone is that she creates a minstrel show entertainment for the wedding of the senior Booths but then in seeing it rehearsed realizes she is disparaging "Negroes" and herself.
Here the Dresser will pause to say that the stick-in-memory minstrel show performance reminded the Dresser of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled and was not surprised to see later in the program notes that Lee's film was one of the resources that inspired Mad Breed.

Although Act I of Mad Breed plays very fast and it was confusing to have Lee Liebeskind deliver two different roles (no warning in the program notes), Act II slows down and what was not completely digested in Act I settles easily. The Dresser also found that the all purpose room of Joe's Movement Emporium that has no professional stage or permanent seats worked just fine for this play. Something about Mari-Audrey Desy's rustic sets (two separate stages on either side of the staging area) seemed perfectly in keeping with the timeframe.

Mad Breed is billed as family entertainment for a diverse, multigenerational audience. The well executed fight scenes choreographed by Leslie Felbain fascinated the younger members of the audience on May 4th. The Dresser affirms its a play appealing to family audience but it had a dark after-effect that the Dresser cannot shake off. This is probably because the Dresser grew up in a large artistically inclined family that seems to be nothing like most families she has observed who quietly go about their business without creating any trouble for themselves or their family members. What planet does the Dresser live on anyway? Probably everyone has a family member who has gotten in big trouble. At the Annapolis gathering, another friend noted after Jim Beall's story that one of her relatives was the notorious John Brown, whom John Wilkes Booth enjoyed witnessing the Abolitionist's ghastly end.

The Dresser has many friends in the literary community. She helped publish Christopher Conlon's book Mary Falls: Requiem For Mrs. Surratt, an extended work about the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators. Mary was hanged because her boarding house in Washington, DC, was where Booth held his assassination planning meetings. From this collection is "January 1, 1865: Booth" which describes Mary Surratt's reaction to her first meeting of John Wilkes Booth.


When he appears for the first time
at the door, Mary is struck dumb:
he's the most beautiful man--but
more than a man!--she's ever seen.
He stands there, backlit by the
streetlamp beyond, dressed entirely
in black, black boots and breeches,
black jacket with black
velvet collar, black cravat
with flashing diamond stickpin
dazzling her eyes. He
smiles. He bows. He moves
toward her, reaching for her hand,
his touch cold and strong,
causing her to shudder a little,
step back, turn away from the glare
of this fame, this charm,
this blinding black radiance.

by Christopher Conlon
from Mary Falls: Requiem For Mrs. Surratt

Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Conlon

Photos by Ian Armstrong


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 7, 2008 10:02 PM.

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