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Nora Dunn on our first and worst presidents

Two weeks ago, Saturday Night Live alum and west-side native Nora Dunn was in rehearsals at Steppenwolf for the title role in The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, by James Ijames.

Ijames’s script is hallucinatory and gripping: Martha Washington is in her final days, thrashing through a fever dream, tended by the slaves without whom her lifestyle would have been impossible. That’s a grossly incomplete categorization: as Ijames points out in his prefatory notes, this is no “slave play.” Ann Dandridge, Doll, Priscilla, Davy, William, and Sucky Boy are as intricate and indelible as Martha. They also double as other historical figures, both Black and white.

As Dunn put it in an interview on March 13, “You think of Mount Vernon as a tourist attraction when in fact it was a labor camp. You can’t go there and treat it as if it wasn’t part of the holocaust here. I love our Constitution. I love that we have a Declaration of Independence.

“But you can’t ignore the fact that George Washington owned over 300 people. There is little evidence that he had a conscience about it. He talked about them in terms of worth and value. Half of America didn’t believe that. There was an abolitionist movement in the 18th century. Washington wasn’t part of it. The play never lets that go. It doesn’t let George off and it doesn’t let Martha off either.”

Directed by Whitney White and featuring Nikki Crawford as Ann, Celeste M. Cooper as Doll, Sydney Charles as Priscilla, Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Davy, Victor Musoni as William, and Travis Turner as Sucky Boy, the show had all the makings of a feverishly watchable slice of history. Then on March 17, Steppenwolf announced the show was cancelled due to COVID-19. They have made a commitment to stage it in 2021, with the same artists. So make that “has” all the makings of a feverishly watchable slice of history.

To me, that interview with Dunn now seems like it happened last year. The entire world has changed—totally, irrevocably, and cataclysmically—since we spoke. Still, her thoughts have resonance. Dunn was marked as “difficult” for standing up to the macho atmosphere at SNL, where she joined the cast for the 1985 season, along with fellow rookies Jon Lovitz and Dennis Miller. She also became known for her recurring characters, including half of the Sweeney Sisters duo with the late Jan Hooks. Decades before #MeToo, Dunn fought for screen time.

“It was hard. It was a boys’ club. They would always tell me—whatever I wrote or came up with—that they didn’t get ‘girl humor.’ I didn’t understand that. Humor is humor. I was so pissed off—I’m like, I’m hired, I’ve shown you tons of material, and you can’t find anything for me to do? I didn’t hold anything back. But there was always the issue that the guys were in everything. And we had to accept we were in one or two things.”

In 1990, Dunn boycotted the episode hosted by noted misogynist Andrew Dice Clay. Lovitz told the tabloids that she was hard to work with, hard to get along with, and would be fired before the next season. She didn’t return.

“You can’t hold on to your anger,” Dunn said. “That’s building your own blockade.”

Still, she’s angry now.

“I don’t want to be the person who panics. Who buys all the food. I went to Whole Foods, and the shelves were almost bare. But I do feel a lot of trepidation because we have no national leadership.

“Because our ‘president,’ well, we don’t even have a person up there who is a human being. We need someone to say ‘here’s what we have to do. Boom. Boom. Boom. We’re going to have to suffer a little bit. We’re going to lose jobs. It’s a horrible, almost unbelievable shock, but here’s what we’ve got to do to contain this.’

“But he’s not doing that. He’s making it worse. He could have gotten the tests [kits for massive, nationwide testing] in January. He was warned. He didn’t care. My own hope is that he has the virus. And then he’ll be unable to tweet. I don’t know what drugs he’s on. But everyone is seeing it now. I hope.”

She continues:

“What’s coming to roost here is this: Guess what folks, we really do need a CDC. We do need diplomats. We need leadership. Saying ‘burn it all down’ is all very well and good but, that’s not what’s going to save us. I think now, more than ever in my life, community is critical.

“I have a niece in Seattle. They’ve been hit hard. I have so many friends in New York and LA. I fear for all of them, all of us.”

Two weeks ago, Dunn was still going out, but she noticed changes.

“Weird things—like people are in a trance. No one is signaling, driving weird. It’s like we’re all in limbo. There’s this fear of massive job losses. I live with my dog, and that’s how I communicate with many of my neighbors. I think today is the first day it’s really hitting me.

“We have to face the fact that there’s a virus going around that most of us aren’t even allowed to be tested for. We’re not being taken care of. At times like these, we need things not to take our mind off the horror of it. Otherwise you could lose yourself. A good play can take you to a deeper place. You let everything else go and immerse yourself into the story.

“I believe this play does that. It’s important. It’s still important.  v

James Ijames’s The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington is available through Dramatists Play Service, dramatists.com.

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