Family history often provides inspiration for playwrights, as actor-playwright Jenny Mercein knows too well. For her past plays, she has borrowed from her own easily accessible personal history. But for her new solo show, Two Elizas, she stumbled on a deeply buried story from her bloodline — a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a 19th-century relative’s efforts to retain custody of her child. The play drawing from the writer’s experiences and the life of her ancestor makes its world premiere May 4-14 at Luna Stage in New Jersey.
“This was not at all known family history, which is still amazing to me,” Mercein told me. “Years ago, an ex-boyfriend who was in law school at the time called me to say he was studying a case called Barry v. Mercein and could this possibly be a relative of mine? I told him I had never heard of it, but yes, it had to be as we are the only Merceins in the United States. At the time, I did a small amount of research on the case, but I didn’t really dive deep until I started working on the play.”
Here’s how Luna Stage bills the new work: “Two Elizas explores the true story of Jenny’s ancestor Eliza Mercein Barry, whose landmark 1847 U.S. Supreme Court case Barry v. Mercein established a woman’s right to retain custody of her child. Jenny juxtaposes Eliza’s story with her own complicated journey to motherhood, in a moving intergenerational reflection on resilience and women’s rights.”
Two Elizas is co-directed by Lori Elizabeth Parquet and Ryder Thornton. Luna Stage is at 555 Valley Road in West Orange, NJ, an easy commute from New York City. Get ticket information here.
Mercein is an associate professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she has taught since 2016. I knew her work as an actor in regional theater, and was intrigued enough about the title of her earlier solo show Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge that I interviewed her about it way back in 2014.
A decade later, Jenny Mercein found time in between rehearsals to answer a handful of questions about her new piece, Two Elizas.
What was Barry v. Mercein? Who were its players?
Jenny Mercein: Barry v. Mercein made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1847. My ancestor, Eliza Mercein Barry, a native New Yorker, married a Canadian man named John Alexander Barry in 1835. They had two children in rapid succession, and then separated in 1838. Mr. Barry returned to Canada and Eliza remained in New York City with her family of origin. At the time, because English common law was still in effect, the father had a natural right to his children, not the mother. Eliza’s father, at the advice of his lawyers, informed her that to secure her freedom, she would have to give Mr. Barry their son, who was not even two years old at the time. Because her daughter Mary was still an infant, they would ask Mr. Barry if they could keep the girl. At first, Mr. Barry agreed to this arrangement, but soon he began a series of lawsuits, attempting to force Eliza and Mary to return with him to Canada. The case dragged on through numerous courts, almost all ruling in favor of Eliza maintaining custody of her daughter, for eight years. Finally, in 1847, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court ruled Eliza could keep her daughter. The case stands and is still cited as an early example of a mother being able to retain custody of her child, as well as a woman’s right to exit a marriage absent of physical abuse.
Can you share a little about the melding of the personal and the historical in your process?
Jenny Mercein: I knew I had a wealth of autobiographical material that felt worthy of sharing, particularly around mental health issues and my fertility struggles. And when I started digging into the story of my ancestor, I realized our lives had some uncanny parallels. In many ways, it felt like the play wrote itself! Once I found out Eliza Mercein Barry was a New Yorker who was extraordinarily attached to her home in New York and her family of origin, I knew I had the material for a great play by juxtaposing Eliza’s story with my own journey to motherhood. I grew up in Scarsdale, NY, and moved to New York City at 18.
In the play, who do we meet? Is “Jenny” a character?
Jenny Mercein: My co-director, Lori Parquet, likes to say that this piece isn’t really a play, it’s a deeply personal sharing. So yes, you meet me, Jenny. When I am telling stories from my own life, I am always addressing the audience directly and simply sharing these stories in as simply and authentically as possible. Some of the stories can be hilarious at times but are also often quite vulnerable.
When I tell Eliza’s story, the majority of that material is delivered in a sort of flashback, where I transform into my ancestor and other characters from her life. Those scenes from the 1800s, many of which are verbatim from primary source documents of the period, are sometimes in the form of dialogue, sometimes epistolary, and in a few cases, also direct-address to the audience.
Can you share a little about what you pull from your own life, and how it connects to Eliza Mercein Barry’s experiences?
Jenny Mercein: The play begins with my engagement, and then winds back to share stories of my ill-fated dating life in my twenties and thirties. At a certain point, “narrator Jenny” discovers the story of her ancestor, and we begin to travel back in time to Eliza’s journey from engagement through her brief and troubled marriage.
The two storylines begin to mirror each other: engagement, early days of marriage, the quest to get pregnant, but at a certain point they diverge in important ways. Eliza got pregnant within months of getting married, had two children in rapid succession, and then quickly separated from her husband. I got married, suffered mental health challenges and major fertility issues, eventually had a child, and remain with my husband to this day.
The ways in which our stories sometimes parallel each other and sometimes diverge significantly provides an interesting tension in the piece. But beyond plot points, the play really becomes a story of my growing understanding of this ancestral lineage of strong women who imprinted resilience on my DNA.
In about 85 minutes it addresses social justice, women’s rights, the intimacy of the parent-child bond. How do you define its tone?
Jenny Mercein: I would say the tone is “vulnerable.” The first half of the play has many stories which — I know from readings we’ve done — will get a lot of laughs. But even those super funny stories are about the difficulties I faced as a perpetually single woman in my twenties and thirties, a situation exacerbated by the fact that I am the youngest in a large family of siblings who all married young and quickly began multiplying like Gremlins (a line from the show). Even when the stories are seemingly light and funny, they are tinged with sadness as I candidly reveal my desperate desire to find a partner and to have children of my own.
Once we get into Eliza’s story, the piece becomes a moving window into a strong, fiercely independent woman in the mid-1800s constrained by societal and familial pressures to conform to roles that just do not fit her. I started writing the play in 2020, long before the fall of Roe v. Wade, but the play ultimately addresses the irony that in 1847 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld my ancestor’s bodily autonomy — her right to exit a marriage of her own free will and to retain custody of her child — and refuted the notion that women and children were merely property of a man. Yet, as I say in the piece, “I am now a mother to a daughter of my own, and I am raising her in the time of a very different Supreme Court.” When I open up about my own serious mental health struggles and my miscarriage, the play shifts to an even more raw, exposed place.
What do you hope an audience leaves the play with? Do you have an ideal audience in mind for the play?
Jenny Mercein: Despite the heaviness of the topics, I [want] the audience to leave with a sense of hope. I want them to be inspired by the resilience of my ancestors and to think upon the generations of women in their own bloodlines who have assuredly persevered through obstacles. I hope to inspire audience members to allow themselves to be vulnerable and decrease shame they may feel around times when they’ve struggled in life.
When we’ve done readings of the piece, I’ve been extremely encouraged to find that the stories shared appeal to a wide range of audience members. Of course, a female-identifying audience and those who have children will feel a strong connection, but I’ve been so encouraged to have male-identifying audience members, young college students, and people from different ethnic, economic and geographic backgrounds find strong points of connection to the piece as well. I think everyone can appreciate a story about ancestral connections, and both the legacy of trauma, but also the power of resilience that is shared intergenerationally in families.
How is Two Elizas different from (or similar to) the form, intent or tone of your other solo shows and plays?
Jenny Mercein: I’ve written three previous solo shows: Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge, Waiting and pretty. Two Elizas is by far the most vulnerable for me. Like my previous shows, this piece takes advantage of my natural ability to tell a good, self-deprecating story, a skill I put to good use when I won a Moth story slam this past fall in New Orleans. As anyone who knows me knows, I am someone who has a plethora of funny stories. But my career and aims as an artist really shifted in 2012, when I started working on X’s and O’s, a documentary theater piece I co-created with KJ Sanchez about football and traumatic brain injury. Since working on that show, I’ve become increasingly passionate about creating work that speaks to contemporary issues and sparks conversation around difficult topics.
I was most excited about writing Two Elizas because it would enable me to shed light and hopefully spur conversation and healing — around topics such as mental health struggles, fertility issues and miscarriage. I am not alone in dealing with these issues, but I still feel like they often shrouded in shame and secrecy. I believe shame thrives in silence. I hope that by talking candidly about what I’ve been through, I can release others from some of the burden they may carry.
What the Constitution Means to Me, another personal journey that intersects with American legal issues, written and performed by Heidi Schreck, seems to be a cousin to Two Elizas. What artists or scripts inspire you as a writer of one-person plays?
Jenny Mercein: I am a huge Heidi Schreck fan! I’ve loved her since I saw her play Nora in an adaptation of A Doll’s House directed by Chay Yew in Seattle in the early 2000s. I absolutely adored What the Constitution Means to Me, but I think because I am such a super-fan, I never allowed myself to see the parallels between the two pieces. When audience members started making the connection between the plays at staged readings I did in New Jersey last spring, I was stunned. It was the highest compliment imaginable to me! Other influences include Lisa Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride and Wendy Weiner’s solo shows, many of which I saw in the late 1990s. Wendy is a huge reason why I am a solo performer today.
What is the design world of Two Elizas in its premiere production at Luna Stage?
Jenny Mercein: The set is intimate, but honestly a bit more elaborate than I originally envisioned. Our set designer Jack Golden and co-directors Lori Parquet and Ryder Thornton had a vision of creating a very intimate, enveloping space that would both evoke a contemporary space and be able to transform to the 1800s. Lori was also always insistent that the audience be included in the space — that the separation between me as the storyteller and the audience be as minimal as possible. Initially, we considered working in the round, but we settled on a configuration where we have audience on three sides. We have a very small number of props that are almost talismans to help me connect with and transform into the past.
My colleague Maxim Samarov from the Tulane Department of Music has composed a beautiful cello score played live by Amanda Duffin. The lighting design is by Rachel Buden. The sound design is by Dylan Hunter. Michelle Correggio is our stage manager in New Jersey. Grace Harmon was our stage manager in New Orleans. Jed Diamond was our Alexander coach.
Share a little bit about the development of the play?
Jenny Mercein: The play was developed with support of an amazing organization at Tulane called The Newcomb Institute, whose mission includes supporting research on women’s history and the inequities of gender politics. Via a Newcomb Institute grant, in the summer of 2020 I was able to hire an amazing student research assistant named Julia Prager-Hessel, who is now a Fulbright Scholar in Budapest. Julia spent a summer coming through court cases and making sense of the 19th century legalese (no small feat) as well as uncovering a treasure trove of primary source materials including letters between Eliza and her husband, as well as John’s bitter manifesto written in response to one of the many court cases in which Eliza’s rights as a woman were affirmed.
In the spring of 2022, I obtained further funding that enabled me to do a highly productive dramaturgical workshop with Adam Koplan of The Flying Carpet Theater in Atlanta, GA. Adam deserves major kudos for helping me figure out the best method for interweaving the two narratives.
I also brought a draft of the play to Luna Stage in April of 2022 for their Underground Reading Series, which was invaluable and led to Ari Laura Kreith, Luna’s artistic director, to invite me to do a full production this May. Lori Elizabeth Parquet joined the team as co-director with Ryder Thornton last fall, and in November of 2022 we did one last week of development, focused on tightening the script and experimenting with adding a musical score to the piece. We discovered in that November workshop that music was a powerful tool to help with the transitions between present day and the scenes in the past.
What was the greatest challenge of writing Two Elizas?
Jenny Mercein: Writing this play has been really healing for me. I’ve been so inspired by learning this amazing family history, which I knew nothing of before the journey started, and it’s helped me gain perspective on some difficult chapters in my own life. Making sense of the legal documents was initially a challenge, but I must once again give a shout out to my amazing research assistant Julia Prager-Hessel.
Can you talk a little bit about the title of the play?
Jenny Mercein: I came up with the title before I wrote a word of the play. I would say more, but it would be a very big spoiler and ruin a fun reveal and the very end of the play.