A senior thesis from Roger Q. Mason is staged at McCarter Theatre.
By Bob Brown
Roger Q. Mason, Princeton ‘08, has come up with as imaginative and entertaining a senior thesis as you’re likely to see on stage. His play, Orange Woman, is a whirlwind fling through a slice in the life and times of one Lucy Negro, aka The Abbess of Clerkenwell.
It all started when Mason was introduced in a Princeton University acting course to the so-called orange women, not of Nassau, but of Shakespeare’s time. They sold oranges and other fruit to lower-class theatergoers. This led him to think about writing a play for his senior thesis on the secret lives of certain historical figures, and to period research in British archives.
Lucy was one of these figures, a black woman who some scholars suggest had captured the fancy of William Shakespeare. She achieved notoriety among gentlemen of the Inns of Court as proprietress of a brothel in Clerkenwell, an area known for the flesh trade. Whether or not she was the same Lucy Morgan who was a Lady-in-Waiting to Elizabeth I is open to dispute. But it makes a nice conceit.
And it also ties together the threads in Mason’s one-act play. In the opening dream sequence, Lucy (Miriam Camara) stands on her bed, while figures around her chant a phrase from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127, “Sweet beauty hath no name…” This is the first of his “Dark Lady” sonnets, which some have suggested are written about, and to, Lucy. In the following scene, Lucy awakes to the morning of her 16th birthday. An ebony masque with dancing is to be held in her honor that evening.
As the adoptive “daughter” of Queen Elizabeth (Heather May), Lucy is fawning and devoted — up to a point. However, their relationship unravels as Elizabeth unmasks her own deceptions about ugly truths from the past. Swiftly, Lucy discovers — and is discovered by — the visiting playwright Shakespeare (Paul Bangiola). He is smitten and inspired by her. But the jealous queen is angered, and the young playwright is banished, inducing Lucy to break with her mistress and seek him out.
Heading for her newfound love, she sees a seamier side of street life where women (Laura Hankin, Olivia Stoker and Alexandra Leggett, who also play multiple roles as ladies of the court, orange women and seamstresses) ply their trade. Minnie (Shannon Lee Clair), the madam of a house of pleasure, takes Lucy in and introduces her to a new concept: “to tup.”
In turn, Lucy discovers its true meaning in the person of the lustful Shakespeare, who can’t help composing verses to her. (Appropriately, the first record of “tup” in English is in Shakespeare’s Othello, 1604.) From there, it’s not too great a leap for Lucy Negro to come into her own and break from her faithless lover. She transforms herself into a businesswoman as the Abbess of Clerkenwell, presiding over her own house of pleasure. Things come around full circle in a satisfying conclusion, a bed at center stage, and Elizabeth in a more supplicant position.
Mason’s play crams a lot of ideas into an hour and a half. It flies by, thanks to Kemati J. Porter’s excellent direction, as well as the quick transitions, and Zane Pihlstrom’s economical but elegant stage sets. The mood for the different scenes is conjured up by David M. Lawson’s very evocative soundscape — not just period music, but also street sounds and natural noises. Chloe Chapin’s lush costumes add a lot to the period feel as well.
Since one of Elizabeth’s delights is Lucy’s unique dancing, the play and Lucy’s character development depend on the choreography. Camara dances with verve and humor. We can see her character’s independence evolve, from her first stiffly formal dancing to her last free and sensual performance. Dyane Harvey Salaam has given the troupe a few meaty dance routines as well. Especially delightful is the orange women sequence.
The entire small ensemble is just fine. Standout performances are by May as the pallid Queen (she bears an uncanny resemblance to Cate Blanchett — or maybe it’s just my imagination based on May’s acting skills) and by Shannon Lee Clair as the worldly wise Minnie.
Was anything missing? Mason’s play had a few funny lines. The characters and situations are ripe for it. Given his fertile imagination, he should let his witty side out even more in his next play. Finally, theater patrons would have liked to have program notes about the playwright and his thought-provoking project, as well as some of the history.
But these are very small cavils. Overall, Mason and the polished production merit an A.
Orange Woman: A Ballad for a Moor continues at the Berlind Theatre of the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, April 10-12, 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10-$15; (609) 258-2787; (609) 258-9229.