Mount Auburn cemetery comes alive in performance of ‘The America Plays’
The deceased members of Mount Auburn Cemetery are walking, talking and performing plays through Sept. 22. Well, almost. “The America Plays,” written by Mount Auburn artist-in-residence Patrick Gabridge, explore the lives of some of the most notorious residents in the Cambridge cemetery and others who were closely linked to it.
This is the second set of five plays Gabridge has produced for Mount Auburn. The first set, performed in the spring, explored the natural beauty of the placid resting place. “The America Plays,” like the country itself, are a little less tranquil. The eight historical characters depicted by the versatile seven-person cast spread across more than two centuries of history, from 1779 to 1993.
Gabridge doesn’t glamorize history and its characters. Jacob Bigelow (Ken Baltin), a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and one of the founding leaders of Mount Auburn, displays his prejudice, for pretty much everything, from the first scene.
But Bigelow’s closemindedness only further illuminates the success of other players, like Edmonia Lewis (Cheryl D. Singleton) who was the first woman of African American and Native American descent to garner international fame as a sculptor. In one scene, three ghosts — of Lewis, of another female sculptor from Watertown, Harriet Hosmer (Amanda Collins), and of actress Charlotte Cushman (Sarah Newhouse) — chat about the old days together. Lewis takes this opportunity to explain to the other women how her experience was different than their own because of her race. The historical figures also gossip about their same-sex love affairs with giddy excitement that lends a whimsical, contemporary air to the show.
Though she began her career in Boston, Lewis is not interred at Mount Auburn because of the extreme racial prejudice she experienced in New England. She spent most of her life in Rome. Hers isn’t the show’s only story of migration. The final chapter of “The America Plays” follows Thomas Amirian (Matthew C. Ryan) and his family as they emigrate from Armenia to Brookline, losing years and loved ones along the way. Though they create a life here in the Boston area, it’s a bittersweet experience.
Gender is another barrier explored in “The America Plays.” Harriot Kezia Hunt (Karen MacDonald), the first woman to practice medicine in the United States, fought Harvard Medical School for years for the right to study there. A contentious conversation between Hunt and Bigelow shows that even after death, Hunt never garnered the respect she deserved among the male physician community.
Gabridge has achieved the tricky balance of illustrating the problems and challenges in these characters while also paying homage to the legacy of Mount Auburn. “The America Plays” shows the cemetery as the country is, sometimes beautiful, serene and brimming with kinship, sometimes dark, lonely and prejudiced.