Shipwreck summary - Spoilers Below
Content transparency: This play contains discussion and depictions of racism, treatment of enslaved people, sexism, profanity, rape, and assault. It also contains the politically loaded appropriation of traditional Christian iconography.
SHIPWRECK: A History Play about 2017
by Anne Washburn
In their recently purchased and converted upstate New York farmhouse, Jools and Richard host a group of their liberal, city friends for a weekend. Conversations among the friends move from the history and foundations of the house – built in 1776 and passed down through the generations of a single family – to their thoughts on current political events, and the improbability of snow. Allie, a voracious newshound, is frustrated by her cell phone’s inability to receive service, which another friend blames on her “bum provider.”
In a different temporal space, we hear quotes from ex-head of the FBI James Comey’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June of 2017.
The last two of the friends to arrive to the farmhouse, Jim and Teresa, have come from the birth of another friend’s baby. They recount the dramatic events around the birth, and shift to speak to baby Hannah directly. The birth has distracted them from the news cycle and Teresa inquires about updates regarding James Comey’s hearing. The liberals imagine what that infamous dinner between Comey and Trump must have been like. Jools offers to bake for the group while they wait for Richard to return with the weekend’s worth of groceries.
Time and space shifts: it is now summertime, and we meet Lawrence, a farmer. He tells us about the process of adopting a Black child from Africa in the 1970s, and how it seemed, at the time, less problematic and socially complex than adopting an inner-city Black child.
In the farmhouse, conversation among the liberals turns to the effectiveness of political theater.
The world shifts once more, and this time we meet Mark, a young Black man. We have seen him intermittently moving through the farmhouse, seemingly observing the liberal group of friends. He remembers introducing himself as being “from Africa,” to another Black child, when he was six-years-old. He recalls the rarity of seeing other Black people throughout his upbringing.
Richard returns to the farmhouse without the groceries, arguing he thought the group would go out for dinner. The snow, which no one believed would actually come, begins to fall.
As the storm rages outside the farmhouse, Lawrence and Mark interchangeably narrate events from earlier in their respective lives. For Mark, this has much to do with acknowledgements of his Blackness as a child, while Lawrence recounts the emotionality of becoming a father.
The group feasts on a makeshift meal of ketchup-based soup and hotdogs, while Louis reenacts what he believes to be “the fundamental Trump lie,” in which Trump, during a 2016 Primary Debate, claimed that he was famous, in 2003, for his opposition to the Iraq War. Louis’ partner, Andrew, reveals that much of Louis’ information comes from socializing with Trump-supporters at bars in the New York tri-state area. Jools, confused that her very busy lawyer friends are spending so much time in bars, asks if Louis’ habits stem from a “gay sex thing,” at which the group laughs.
We flash back to Mark’s childhood and watch him deliver a presentation, complete with a poster board and a pie chart, on why he should have access to MTV. Despite his commitment to taking on a part-time job to pay for cable access, his father squashes this plan when he suggests that MTV does not align with Christian values.
During a shift back to the farmhouse, Allie demands an explanation for the inaction of her friends when Mitch McConnell blocked Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. While acknowledging some of her own distractions (great TV, food, and baby photos on social media), she defends her numerous Facebook posts as political action. She explains her fear that now the Republicans will do anything to keep power, because what people fear most are those that they’ve wronged. She compares the situation to the way the South continued to oppress Black people after the Civil War. Her friends protest the problematic and racially insensitive nature of the comparison. There is discourse over the intellectual superiority of Democrats over Republicans.
We are transported to an office in Trump Tower in New York City in 2003.
Trump welcomes George W. Bush into his office. Together, they look out at the New York skyline, and remark on how differently it looked pre-9/11. Bush coins the term, “bad hombres,” in real time. After some forced pleasantries, the two square off regarding Trump’s aggressive opposition to the impending Iraq War. Ultimately, the men agree to a physical fight and set their terms.
At the farmhouse, dinner is over, and Allie posits that, “the Black people saw Trump coming.” The group struggles with her use of the term, “Black people,” which Allie defends as being “obviously not okay.” After defending her weariness of “ultra-performative white liberalism,” Allie admits to feeling uneasy about the lack of linguistic distinction between Black people whose ancestors experienced slavery in America, and those who have recently immigrated from Africa or elsewhere. Over the course of additional conversation, Louis and Andrew reveal that they are among the 1%, but only just. Jim and Teresa conversely reveal that they are struggling financially. Louis suddenly reveals that he voted for Trump. Everyone, including Andrew, responds with confusion and fascination. Luis explains that when he was in the ballot box, he realized that he could vote for him, and in the eyes of his friends it would be the most shocking and taboo thing he could ever do.
As time passes, the group wonders if perhaps Trump is the anti-Christ. Teresa is moved to quote passages from the Bible. Louis admits that he voted for Trump on purpose, and might have done so even if he had known Trump would win.
Mark, who was born in Kenya and raised in a small, white community in upstate New York, in an effort to come to terms with what defines him as a Black man in the US, takes on somatically aspects of what he imagines to have been an enslaved person’s lived experience. In taking stock of both his personal, and the US’ collective, history, his imaginings include the following emotionally graphic scenarios: being purchased by a white man; stooping in the sun, picking tobacco; being whipped; being raped by the white man who has purchased him; and having to say goodbye to his 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, forever, as she is sold into slavery to another owner. Mark wonders what it is that Black people pass on to their children regarding American history. He shares that while the history of slavery in the US has nothing to do with him or his Kenyan ancestors, the legacy of it, “penetrates [him] all the same.”
In a radical shift of space and time, James Comey arrives at his storied dinner with the 45th president of the United States. Trump offers Comey wine and steak, rejoices that Comey is not a vegetarian, and employs various tactics and persuasions to gain Comey’s loyalty. Trump’s power over Comey morphs, appearing behind him on a throne, while Comey recites from the Bible. Flashes of various iconography blend religious figures with those of the Trump family and modern Republican party, perhaps in the style of an MTV montage.
We see Lawrence appear in an altogether different temporal space; he explains why he might, hypothetically, in 30 years, vote for a politician who was not only, “controversial,” but whose attitudes towards race Lawrence finds, “offensive.”
Mark appears and tells us that his dad died, not long before the 2016 election, during a time when they were estranged over his father’s support for Trump. Mark confesses that he voted for Trump, never dreaming he would win, in order to represent his father, to have “one last moment of dad in the world.”
Mark says goodbye to his father, as the group of liberal friends emerges and says hello to the dawn of a new era.