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The endless, repetitive conversations in Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 are exhausting. The characters are grating. That’s the point, of course.
Anne Washburn’s play echoes the Trump-related anxieties of a certain kind of white liberal with eerie accuracy, but it doesn’t indulge those viewpoints. Instead, it flips them on their head. At its heart, the play isn’t actually about this group of mostly affluent, mostly middle-aged, mostly white, mostly liberal friends and their political neuroses at all. It punchily satirizes the breathless tracking of each new political development and the grand stakes of good and evil #Resistance-types assign to Cabinet figures as if they’re only characters in a drama. It then satirizes the conventions of those dramas. Shipwreck is really about the reality of being a black man in America, and how race and racism affect every moment of American life.
It’s 2017, and a group of friends are meeting up at the new house Jools (Anna Ishida) and Richard (James Whalen) have just moved into. They’ve just seen Trump’s inauguration and the situation in Washington consumes their thoughts. Their phones unleash a stream of bad news, then a follow-up gush of reactions to that bad news. They’re playing four-dimensional political chess out loud and on Facebook, only it doesn’t seem to actually accomplish anything: Their political angst is all talk, no action. Even after a dramatic admission from Louis (Jon Hudson Odom)—he cast his vote following a dark, inexplicable whim—they break no new ground. It’s the most effective send-up of liberal anxiety in the last three years I’ve seen, and the characters will all be achingly recognizable to the audience, especially Allie (Jennifer Dundas), the group’s most ferocious keyboard warrior. It’s also a stunning reminder of just how much news has been directed at our faces since 2017, as the characters reference events that were jaw-dropping at the time and barely register as memories today.
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But Shipwreck delights in placing its viewers on unsteady ground, and there are many disruptions that hint that these characters are not the ones we should be spending the most time with. Unexpected soliloquies punctuate the action; the setting and characters notably change twice, with dramatic consequences. Early on, it becomes clear that the house is haunted, in a manner of speaking, by the family who lived there before Richard and Jools. Shipwreck masterfully plays with haunted house tropes, allowing Mark (Mikéah Ernest Jennings), the adopted Kenyan son of the house’s previous owners, to wander through the house and observe the characters unseen, tracked by spotlights that give him an unearthly glow. He’s not there, but his presence is certainly felt by the characters, though they blame their unsettled feelings on the snowstorm outside, the paucity of groceries inside, and the orange man in the White House. And when Donald Trump comes on stage, as if manifested from their anxious chatter, he’s first a noble knight in shining armor; later, he’s the overseer of an occult empire of dark forces.
What makes these shifts in tone and setting work is the remarkable production design from Arnulfo Maldonado. When the set unexpectedly moves, it’s with shocking fluidity; light and sound are used to great effect to indicate the jarring passing of time and the not-quite-ghost inhabiting the home. Voices echo at the end in an impressive feat that emphasizes a cavernous set reveal.
But the play’s real highlight and its heart is Jennings’s performance as Mark, a black man who grew up in a white family and in a white town, who muses not about Trump but about his origins, his adolescence, his family, and how his race has affected every aspect of his American world. Jennings is given incredibly heavy material that he has to carry alone, with no one to play off of, and without his light touch it could easily veer into mawkish territory. Instead, he keeps his delivery controlled, and as a result controls the room—he’s impossible to look away from. When he does explode in anger and grief, it’s both shocking and deeply earned. And though he very rarely gets to interact with other characters, at the play’s end, Mark’s investigation of his relationship with his father is deeply affecting.
When Shipwreck places Donald Trump and James Comey head-to-head and frames their battle as a timeless clash of the forces of good and evil, it does so with a completely straight face. But the matchup is knowingly comedic, a sendup of the histrionic language and analogies used—in 2017 and today—to describe the Trump presidency and its very real stakes. The play’s exaggerations bring into relief the uselessness of treating Trump as an evil genius or a high fantasy villain. Instead, he’s a very powerful man with the ability to cause huge amounts of human suffering, often with little forethought. It’s not epic; it’s banal. By inflating the stakes to intense heights but never cheapening itself by giving the audience a knowing wink, Shipwreck pulls off a rare successful Trumpian satire.
To March 8 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$88. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.
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