In a world where women’s rights are under attack, it struck me as peculiar to witness a story about a white woman who in spite of all her wealth and privilege, found time to complain. . . a lot. In a country where 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, it also struck me as peculiar to witness a story about a white woman who feels paralyzed within the comforts of her gilded patriarchy. Luckily, no one masters the peculiar quite like Terry Guest.
The Story Theatre, in its second season, has mounted a theatrical feast with Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes. Written and directed by resident playwright Terry Guest, the play chronicles the life and eventual demise of the last queen of France. The production features an ensemble of mostly black actors (sans the two who play Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI) and begins with the façade of a boarded up storefront with the words “This is not history” written broadly across the wall. While this image alludes to days of civil unrest past and present, it functions mainly as an omen that Guest will not be exploring history verbatim, but expanding upon the ripples that provoke the waves of change throughout history. Though much of the action of the play takes place in France from 1774 to 1793, it wouldn’t be a Terry Guest production without transcending time and space. Marie Antoinette explores the continuum of political resistance by taking us to New Orleans, Haiti, Chicago, and even Texas; anywhere where violence and resistance have mingled to create radical change.
The story revolves mainly around Marie Antoinette, played by the effervescent Brenna DiStasio, but it is most certainly an ensemble piece. The cast switches between a wide range of roles, from Marie’s servants to prominent historical figures like Jackie Onassis, Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Toussaint Louverture and even Napolean Bonaparte. This production is a rotating door of historical and pop culture references. Keith Illidge, in his portrayals of John F. Kennedy and Swedish fop Axel von Fersen, expertly undercuts his comedic chops with vulnerable realism. Amber Washington is authoritative and bold in her portrayal of Mammy, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Her performance, in contrast to Maya Vince Prentiss as Sambo, a disgruntled maid turned vigilante, gives life to the complexity of black relations when positional power is at play. Nathaniel Andrew plays many roles but his turn as Jerome, a young man perpetually faced with impending violence who therefore “packs light” with only 7 things in his pocket, is both moving and utterly poetic. Danyelle Monson is the source of much needed levity throughout, while also displaying incredible range in her role as Catherine, a servant unwilling to dethrone her master and join the impending uprising. David Stobbe as King Louis XVI is both sweet and majestic in his portrayal. It must be said that Terry Guest has painted his two white characters to be sympathetic but still not well-minded people. It is in a final scene where Marie and King Louis contemplate both the end of their lives and their legacies that we see the fragile inner workings of white leaders who, rather unfortunately, cannot lead.
It must be said that the real tour de force here is Terry Guest. Fresh off of his production of Magnolia Ballet at About Face Theatre, in which he functioned as both writer and performer, here Guest infuses a spirit of resistance into his writing that challenges the art form of linear storytelling. Having his audience play both the judge and jury to Marie Antoinette, he plays with the convention of breaking the third wall and invites his audience into an accountability exercise that takes a long uncomfortable look at the discomfort that comes with progressive allyship. While many playwrights might avoid tangents that seemingly distract from the central narrative, Guest brandishes his agency as a playwright and blithely invites you into the depths of his subconscious time and time again. Consistently dropping in pop culture references and iconography to serve up a smorgasbord of theatrical elements, Guest in this piece has risen up as one of Chicago’s freshest and most daring storytellers.
While an obvious moral of the story may be hidden amongst the many gems that shine here, the audience is left with the understanding that the road to justice is not free. Rather, it is both painful and messy, and oftentimes our “chosen” leaders are simply guessing as to the way to move forward after seasons of continuous devastation. Marie Antoinette and The Magical Negroes asks us to hold ourselves accountable for our rage, our revenge, and our means of achieving retribution. What will it take to break America? What will it take to mend this world? Though the answers are unknown, what we do know is that we are not alone.
Marie Antoinette and the Magical Negroes runs at The Story Theatre (Resident Company at Raven Theatre) until July 17th. This show is 100 minutes with no intermission. Proof of full vaccination and masking is required.
Rescripted is a community-funded publication, and we are grateful for your support. If you’d like to support arts criticism like this, subscribe to our Patreon today!
Jim Crow – Keith Illidge
Mammy – Amber Washington
Sapphire – Danyelle Monson
Sambo – Maya Vinice Prentiss
Savage – Nathaniel Andrew
Marie Antoinette – Brenna DiStasio
King Louis XVI – David Stobbe
Jim Crow/Savage (u/s) – Dylan Rogers
Sapphire (u/s) – Cat Christmas
Sambo (u/s) – Marlene Slaughter
Mammy (u/s) – Caitlin Dobbins
Marie/Louis (u/s) Jourdan Lewanda
Playwright – Terry Guest
Director – Terry Guest
Choreographer – Ayanna Bria Bakari
Associate Director – Brittney Brown
Production Stage Manager – Lucy Whipp
Assistant Stage Manager – Ariel Beller
Scenic Designer – Jordan Dell Harris
Lighting Designer – Levi Wilkins
Sound Designer – Andrew Littleton
Costume Designer – Isaac-Jay Pineda
Original Composition – Willow James
Master Electrician – Liz Gomez
Technical Director – Stina Taylor
Violence Designer – Thomas Russell
Producers – Meagan Dilworth & Paul Michael Thomson
Photo credit: David Hagen