The Morris-Jumel Mansion is the oldest and perhaps the most intriguing of historic houses in Manhattan. The mansion/museum is beautifully situated in the second-highest location in the city and is surrounded by Queen-Anne, Romanesque and Neo-Renaissance style row houses and a uniquely inspired development on Sylvan Terrace. The mansion and houses are landmarked as the Jumel Terrace Historic District of Washington Heights, and the entire area’s illustrious and continuing history began with players like George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, each of whom walked the floorboards of the stately house, peered through its windows, and held conversations about their lives inside and outside on the grounds.
Husband Aaron Burr visited there and slept in the beautiful red appointed bedroom which Eliza Jumel, his last wife, had outfitted for the U.S. Vice President around the time of their marriage.
Eliza Jumel is the subject of the play Awakening in Ink, being performed at the mansion. Her history is as fascinating as her infamous husband’s, whom she was suing for divorce; Burr’s death in 1836 precluded that event. Awakening in Ink written and directed by Vincent Carbone is loads of fun in its evocation of the past, with references to Eliza Jumel’s relationship with her husband Stephen, his accidental death, her marriage to Burr, and the years after her death and into the 20th century after New York City purchased the mansion and converted it into a museum.
The play is immersive, with sly humor and peppered with historical details. The action is interactive and the subject, Eliza Jumel, insinuates herself upon audience members, who are called upon to be participants as they move along dimly lit passageways around the mansion from the downstairs kitchen to the spacious entrance-hallway up to Eliza Jumel’s and Aaron Burr’s bedrooms, and back downstairs again.
Indeed, audience members are fellow investigators who must follow the play’s protagonist, Lauren Wilmet (Hannah Chloe Kaplan), wherever she goes. If the audience does not follow the lamp that Lauren carries, an unction stated in a strange letter read by a audience member at the outset, they will have to remain alone, in the dark, susceptible to any and all of the forces in the mansion that are longing to contact them from beyond the veil.
The unusual evening begins when gatekeeper Chris (Chris Davalos) speaks to Lauren about being the caretaker of the mansion for the evening, as Lauren, a performer, has agreed to stay. Chris leaves his phone number and tells Lauren to call if she needs anything. The audience participants watch this interchange with no expectations. The lights are bright; the parlor where the audience sits is beautiful and the mansion appears inviting with its beautiful colonial-style decor that has a grand charm and luxurious feel.
After Chris leaves, Lauren settles in to work on a song she is writing, and gets through some riffs, but is startled and forced to stop. Noises in the hallway disturb her. Distracted, she gets up to seek their source and expresses her fear that someone is there, though she intuits it cannot be flesh and blood. When Lauren jumps up and exits the parlor to investigate the hallway, the audience follows with her, remembering the unction to follow the lamp, but all is fine and Lauren returns to the parlor to write her song and audience members return to their seats nonplussed.
However, on the floor, a book has materialized, obviously left for her to peruse. Thumbing through it she sees articles, handwritten notes, letters and other inky mementos. Curious, she begins to read. From the first sentences we understand that these articles and letters relate to the history of the mansion and Madame Jumel. Some relate to events in the mansion that happened in the 20th century, long past the death of its owner in 1865.
If fellow investigators look away from Lauren, they might glimpse a figure in black, gliding across the corridor of the great entrance-way. The figure resembles the female in the painting hanging in the parlor across from the painting of Aaron Burr, dressed in black flowing lace like the woman in the painting. It is Eliza Jumel.
As Lauren reads from the archives of letters and articles, we begin to piece together the story of ghostly sightings and the reasons behind the paranormal events that have occurred in the mansion. At Lauren’s utterances, the spirits unsettle. The the lights go out and there is the sound of footsteps. In her attempt to confront whatever it is, Lauren fumbles for the lamp on the mantle and turns it on. She calls out determined to search out the sounds outside in the corridor. A haunted atmosphere descends.
Lifting high the only lamp, which barely pierces the thick curtain of darkness, Lauren seeks the ghost of Eliza Jumel, or of the servant girl who killed herself at the mansion because of an ill-fated romance. Or perhaps it is another spirit reputed to haunt the mansion. Audience members rush close to Lauren as she leaves the parlor.
Like Lauren, all are compelled along this strange, ghostly journey. No one wants to be left behind in the dark. Some giggle in expectation, others nervously hold hands or each other’s garments as they climb downstairs to investigate who is in the colonial kitchen where there are loud raps and steps.
Shadows and darkness loom over everyone. It is so dark we can barely see our hands in front of our faces. As Lauren enters the area, she is compelled to stop and read from the book, as if to fulfill its destiny. The audience stands, their ears intent for more strange sounds. They wait and listen. Lauren’s voice breaks the silence and penetrates the darkness. She reads accounts of historical incidents and ghostly sightings.
Rappings and footsteps sound from above. Lauren is driven from the downstairs kitchen. The audience stays close behind her craving the small rays of light from the lamp. All ascend to the main floor. Lauren searches and sees nothing. She reads in the lantern light wanting clues to who is there and who is not there. Another revelation, another manifestation comes.
Lauren and the unnerved participants are driven upstairs to the bedrooms of Eliza Jumel and Aaron Burr. More information is revealed. With each article Lauren unravels another segment of the mansion’s secrets. The ghosts that haunt manifest in noises, weird sounds, shufflings, knocks. Eliza Jumel’s unmistakable presence is there. But why? The clues are in the book. Lauren is especially curious to know why Eliza may be running from something – perhaps from her, perhaps from the truth. And so are we.
The audience members have become fellow wayfarers accepting Lauren’s mission as their own, though fear of abandonment to the spirits is its own felt presence. All stick with the adventure, compelled through the oppressive coal-black darkness by the diminutive heroine with the beacon of light.
By the end of the evening, Lauren stumbles upon a logical rationale which explains how and why the spirits are unsettled. Fascinating true accounts of the ghostly hauntings in the mansion are revealed. The dates the sightings happened are given and the veil is lifted. The book has offered its mysteries about the ghosts (five of them). A few of them involve deaths that occurred at the mansion. And Eliza Jumel (Constance Cooper), the grand mistress of them all, has made her vivid and dramatic appearance, then disappears. Will she return?
Awakening in Ink is an enjoyable and enlightening production unlike any you will experience in New York City. It runs until November 7 at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The production is one more commemorative event in the 250th anniversary celebration of the illustrious history of one of New York’s most dynamic houses and museums.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1613733801][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0375708731]