port of harlem magazine
woolly mammoth theatre
Shipwreck - A Period Piece Classic
February 27 – March 11, 2020

Jon Hudson Odom

“How do you do this?” recalled Kenyan-born director Saheem Ali on his initial reading of “Shipwreck, A History Play About 2017,” now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theater through Sunday, March 8. As expected, the DC theater earned more points for offering another uniquely creative, inclusive, and diverse production. However, this one, as Ali alluded, is for those who gravitate toward challenging dialogue.

The storyline is contemporary and only history to those too young to comprehend current events, tuned out, or yet to be born. I predict that this play will have a long stage life and only after digesting it will some realize they had witnessed the birth of a period piece classic.

The two-hour and 45 minute creation, with a 15-minute intermission, centers on events surrounding the current presidency. And with its White liberal tilt, it fits a Washington, DC audience. Playwright Anne Washburn explains the impetus for writing the drama. “I felt like the political situation was all I was thinking about. I just wanted to discharge my brain.”

After seeing the result of Washburn’s discharge, DC’s Joseph Hamilton quipped, “It was like an impressionistic painting, people will have their own interpretations.” Brittany, a viewer from New York, thought that parts of the play were “confusing.” It was the subplot about a child adopted from Kenya and struggling to feel connected to the central story’s White family and culturally European-American environment that I found profoundly confusing.

While the dramatic performance by Jon Hudson Odom, as Louis and James Comey, was the most memorable, Jennifer Dundas, as Allie, had the lines that will  most resonate with Blacks. “Black people saw it coming,” she said as a White character on the advent of the current president. “You are most afraid of those you have done wrong,” she later said as she questioned the relationship between Whites and the children of the enslaved.

The first three-fourths of the play focused on dialogue; patrons had to wait to the last quarter to soak in spectacular scenes created by Arnulfo Maldonado, lighting by Colon Bills, sound by Palmer Heffrean, and projections by Jared Mezzocchi.

Maybe when I see this play again 20 years from now, I will have to explain to the next generation that yes, living through these times is like expecting the ship you are on to wreck. That is, if the ship is still sailing.
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