This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

18Oct/20

SHIPWRECK: A HISTORY PLAY ABOUT 2017

All-star cast of audio play Shipwreck rehearses over Zoom (photo courtesy the Public Theater)

Public Theater
Five-part audio presentation
Started streaming October 16, free (closed captions added by October 26)
publictheater.org

“I haven’t had a Trump-free twenty-four hours in, oh, I think it’s been over a year,” Allie says in Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017, a satiric audio drama streaming for free from the Public Theater. She has no idea what she’s in for. Shipwreck premiered in February from DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and was scheduled to run at the Public as well, but it has now been repurposed by Washburn and original director Saheem Ali for online listening, divided into three parts in addition to an introductory program note and a water cooler discussion. The show takes place in an eighteenth-century upstate farmhouse, where a group of liberal friends have gathered in the wake of James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017. Jools (Sue Jean Kim) and Richard (Richard Topol) have invited Mare (Mia Barron) and Jim (Rob Campbell), Luis (Raúl Esparza) and Andrew (Jeremy Shamos), Lawrence (Bruce McKenzie), and Allie (Brooke Bloom) to spend the weekend at their new country home, as they agree and disagree about such topics as white privilege, Lord of the Rings, the big bad city, conspiracy theories, chaos voters, Comey’s personality, racism, Jim Jones, liberal dreams, the rule of law, and what’s for dinner. Also making critical appearances are Comey (Joe Morton), George W. Bush (Phillip James Brannon, sounding more like Barack Obama), and Donald J. Trump (Bill Camp), along with his secretary (Jenny Jules). Washburn (Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play; A Devil at Noon) gets the absurdist tone just right, nailing sarcasm and irony, hypocrisy and elitism by a group of friends who are sure they know best, especially when they find out that one of them might not have voted blue in 2016. “Who are those self-obsessed white people?” my wife called out at one point from the other room, not knowing what I was doing.

Director Saheem Ali leads online rehearsal for Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 (photo courtesy the Public Theater)

One of the key exchanges, and a terrific example of Washburn’s knack for incisive, realistic dialogue, occurs when a conversation uncomfortably turns to Black people and Trump. Allie begins, “You know who wasn’t surprised by all this? The Black people. They saw Trump coming.”

Mare: “Yeah . . .”
Andrew: “Yes, so I read in the media.”
Allie: “When we were all so freaked out, how could this happen!? They were like: Yeah . . . we know why.’ And now all heads swivel towards the Black people: What else do they know?”
Andrew: “Is that what the heads are really doing?”
Richard: “Racism systemic racism played a part, it totally played a part obviously but big obvious scapegoats aren’t going to help us out of this situation.”
Andrew: “Okay wait wait can we hold up for a moment. ‘The Black People.’ ‘The Black People. . . .’”
Jools: “‘The Black People. . . .’”
Jim: “Nope Allie, it doesn’t sit right.”
Allie: “I mean yes, of course it doesn’t. There’s a certain deliberate . . . tart irony there, no? Like we’re all so woke we can — I can’t, I don’t know if I can fully unpack it but no, I’m not saying ‘the Black People’ like I think it’s okay it’s so obviously not-okay.”
Mare: “So ironic racism is fine is what you’re saying.”
Jools: “Didn’t we have that little talk about using ‘unpack’ in normal conversation among actual humans?”
Allie: “Sometimes jargon is useful. . . . Black People. Black People saw this coming. That sounds weird to me like pseudo-mythic: ‘Black People,’ ‘Green People,’ ‘People of the Mist,’ ‘Zoners.’”
Andrew: “African American is an option.”
Allie: “Obviously, only African American is kind of I mean I know it’s not my place but it’s a lot of syllables and it’s a little bit formal like you’re trying too hard and I thought didn’t we have an unspoken agreement that we were as a group implicitly avoiding that brand of ultra-performative white liberalism also because there’s no distinction there and do Black people or people who are ‘black’ use the term? I’m confused about that and okay I know this is my own personal private but there’s no distinction between people who were brought here in chains three hundred years ago in the hold of a ship and and all of that and people from, like, Namibia who wandered over twenty years ago and sure it’s racist here but they have generations of intact cultural identity for back-up these are not the same people.”
Mare: “Okay, Allie . . .”
Jim: “Oh you’ve forgotten Colonialism.”
Allie: “I mean yes, Colonialism, yes, but it’s not the same. Colonialism doesn’t eviscerate . . . ‘black people’ sounds like, flat and kind . . . yes yes you’re right Colonialism can I mean it depends on who but no but in general, yes, Colonialism, terrible but it isn’t the same it’s just not but ‘black people’ that’s . . .”
Andrew: “I kind of beg to differ . . .”
Allie: “. . . crude . . . maybe I mean crude . . . they’re — no one’s black nobody’s white it’s a built-in oppositional it’s absurdly reductive when we’re all just, when we’re really all just . . . a spectrum of tan.”

At more than two and a half hours not including the intro and postshow talk, the play requires patience on the part of the listener, especially as we’re all so bombarded with 24/7 images from television and the internet and addicted to our phones. Radio plays were once an important and necessary form of entertainment, and the Public is doing what it can in these pandemic times to bring it back, first with its presentation of Richard II in July, which suffered because of commercials on WNYC, and now with the superior Shipwreck, a history play about today, and tomorrow. Get those headphones ready.

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