Shipwreck: The Connection Between Theatre and Politics

November 19, 2020 | Rachel Erwin


Illustration by Caroline Logue

Theatre and politics seem to become more intertwined as every year passes. With so much going on in the news cycle, especially the past four years, artists have a wealth of material to work with when writing plays. The question is, however, how much power does theatre really have?


Shipwreck, a play by Anne Washburn, tackles this idea. Directed by Rupert Goold, it premiered in 2019, before the pandemic, but is currently available for streaming as an audio play, directed by Saheem Ali, through the Public Theater and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. It takes place in a converted farmhouse, where a group of white, liberal friends have gathered. As the night unfolds and a storm rages on outside, secrets are revealed and heated arguments about politics lead to fractured relationships. 


What is particularly intriguing is that the play is subtitled “A History Play About 2017.” In the program note, the difficulty of presenting a play about current events is addressed. Shipwreck is a flashback to 2017, about six months after the 2016 election, because it is meant to be experienced in juxtaposition with what is happening now. Is art more effective when it uses history to comment on today’s world? Are we more receptive to the message it is trying to convey when we are not currently experiencing its plot? After listening to this play, the answer is yes. 


As the play’s plot unfolds, we hear from a variety of city-dwelling liberals. Their discussions span a wide variety of topics, but it is the conversation about racism that is the most explosive, especially given today’s circumstances. Allie, one of the characters, is criticized by the others for claiming that white supremacy is a more nuanced issue. She talks about how being in the majority is a comfortable place to be and not necessarily a bad thing, and wonders if we are using white supremacy as a blanket term for things that should not fall under that umbrella. After her friends express discomfort about her using the phrase, “the Black people,” rather than “Black people,” she lashes out at their suggestion that she should tiptoe around the language she uses to discuss race, arguing that, since there are no Black people in the room, she should be free to explore the subject of racism in her own way. It begs the question, is it “profoundly awkward” for white people to talk about systemic racism? 


Interestingly enough, this segment of the play would have taken on a different meaning if this play had been presented as it was in 2019. Originally, the play included Mark, a Black character. He spoke in long monologues directly to the audience, and the people in the farmhouse were actually meant to be projections of his imagination. It was, in other words, his way of reflecting on racism.


Illustration by Caroline Logue

Since then, the murders of George Floyd and countless other innocent Black people have plagued our nation. Washburn felt that, as a white playwright, she no longer had a right to present a play in which a Black man unpacks racism. She thought the audio version would no longer be possible, but Ali assured her that a version without Mark could be just as impactful. Washburn then adapted the script to what we are listening to today. 


This change implicates the listener in a new way. Theatre often tries too hard to appear as though it is actually making a difference by producing shows that feature the activism of fictional characters. This may sound cynical, but, at the end of the day, a play is still just a play. Theatre is finally being forced to confront this reality, as an industry-wide reckoning occurs as we speak. We, as theatre artists and audiences, are very quick to claim we are “woke” because we engaged with or participated in the production of a thought-provoking or political piece of art. Sure, we can listen to plays like Shipwreck and feel enlightened, but that does not equate to real action. 


What we have to realize is that we are no better than the characters in this play if we simply listen and say “that was eye-opening” but do nothing about it. The fundamental issue with these characters is that they desire action but do not take it. They spend the whole play preaching about the things they supposedly care about, but they are doing this from the comfort of their white privilege. 


It all comes down to the fact that words alone are not enough. “Language is the most dangerous substance on Earth,” the play asserts, but only when paired with an understanding of why change needs to happen and action to go along with it. Being able to express why something matters is a skill that theatre has, but it, like the rest of us, needs to do better by creating meaningful, lasting impact. 


“Art cannot save us. Art isn’t a call to arms, it’s an elegy.”