It was the moment when legendary anarchist Emma Goldman yells, “I just figured out how to turn my labia into a hand puppet!” that I realized Marcus/Emma would not be an easy play to review.
Mary Tuomanen’s 90-minute historical fantasia imagines an encounter between Goldman and another celebrated, charismatic activist, Marcus Garvey. Tuomanen is best known as a Philadelphia actor, and much admired (often by me) for her intriguingly off-center, hip theatrical persona. She brings similar quirks to her writing, with far more mixed results.
Marcus/Emma initially depicts the two characters with a semblance of historical accuracy, underscoring her feminist-anarchist-Jewish roots, and his role in the Black Nationalism movement. The meeting isn’t an impossibility—Goldman was nearly 20 years older, but she and Garvey were active at the same time, and both died in 1940 (this becomes a plot point late the show). But while Garvey and Goldman’s real life politics are explored here through conversations around Big Themes—race and gender especially—Tuomanen isn’t interested in verisimilitude.
Early on, both characters morph into a contemporary riff on themselves. In Goldman’s case, this includes exhibiting a high level of profligate sexuality. (Real-life Goldman, no prude, was known to enjoy sex—but as the line I quoted earlier should illustrate, Tuomanen takes this to an extreme.) The actors here—Susan Riley Stevens as Emma, and Akeem Davis as Garvey—commit fully to everything that’s asked of them. This includes—in addition to 90 minutes of intense dialogue—nudity, simulated sex, and a lot of off-color language. Riley and Davis’s sincere performances are, for me, the highlight of Marcus/Emma.
Tuomanen has an idiosyncratic voice and significant writing skills. She can be both funny and poetic. There are striking sections in Marcus/Emma, including a poignant speech advocating the importance of a woman’s right to feel beautiful. The final scene between them is lovely. But the script is maddeningly repetitious, and much of the conversation leads nowhere. Most dispiriting in this adults-only play is the sense of deliberate provocation—shock for the sake of shock.
But don’t just take my word for it. Tuomanen’s play will delight some viewers even as it infuriates (or merely bores) others. Marcus/Emma is likely be a hot topic of conversation in the Philadelphia theater world for months to come—so judge it for yourselves.
Marcus/Emma plays through February 12. For more information, visit the InterAct Theatre Company website.