It’s 1791 in Bristol, Rhode Island, and Adjua and Dembi, lovers and former slaves who survive by foraging for scraps and odd jobs on the docks, have just found the body of a drowned white man. As they remove his clothes in order to sell them, he returns to consciousness, though he is still confused about who and where he is and how he ended up in the water. The man also shows signs of infestation with the Guinea worm parasite in one of his legs.
The stranger—named “Thomas” by his rescuers—joins Adjua and Dembi in fixing sails on the dock and learns their history. Adjua, captured in Africa, escaped when the slave ship returned to Bristol. There she met Dembi, a runaway from a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. The two have hired a vessel, which will arrive shortly to return them to Africa. As Thomas sings sea shanties, they are interrupted by Balthazar, an Irish sailor, who informs Dembi and Adjua that Liverpool Joe, the English-born black captain they hired, has been lost in a shipwreck.
Balthazar also informs “Thomas” that his real name is John Cranston and that Balthazar himself had been responsible for the botched drowning—a murder-for-hire ordered by a “gentleman” whose name he did not know. Balthazar agrees to locate a new vessel for their planned voyage as he and Cranston reach an uneasy truce.
Tensions mount between Dembi and Cranston over the latter’s attraction to Adjua. After an altercation where Dembi strikes Cranston’s head, Cranston begins to remember more details of his time at sea. Liverpool Joe appears, very much alive. Along with stories of recent slave uprisings in the Caribbean, he fills in a hole in Cranston’s history: The sailor had, just two months earlier, testified to a grand jury against prominent Bristol citizen Captain James De Woolf, of the Polly, a slave ship.
The five “shipmates” make preparations to sail from Bristol together. On the night they plan to leave, Dembi abruptly announces plans to stay on the dock, forever altering the relationships among the five and the course of their history.
The second act jumps to 1837 in Bristol. Cranston now runs a seedy dockside tavern. Bristol, an educated, free black woman, pays him a visit from England. She is on a mission to clear up a mystery and needs his help. She discovers far more than she bargained for about her history and about the nature of justice and vengeance.
e-Luminations: The Liquid Plain
This edited version is reprinted from OSF’s 2013 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.
“Shipmates” on Shore
The dockside relationships Naomi Wallace brings to life in The Liquid Plain are part of a phenomenon that historian Marcus Rediker in The Slave Ship: A Human History identifies as the evolution “from captives to shipmates.” Slave ships were filled with people from diverse regions of sub-Saharan Africa, with their own languages and traditions. As they learned to communicate and cooperate to survive (and sometimes rebel) together on board, so too did the bonds they formed on board the ship continue in the New World.
The idea of the “shipmates” is not a new one, Rediker says. “Historians have written about it in the past. Mostly they had used the concept to describe relationships that survived the Middle Passage, and the re-creation of kin relationships from the ship to wherever they ended up.” But Rediker wanted to go further. “There were these portside communities of people, black and white, who could be connected by this horrible history, this many-headed hydra.”
Rediker’s work posits a “tradition of interracial radicalism that had been lost by the way in which racial categories had hardened. We could no longer see the porous borders between how black and white people had worked together for a very long time. There was a maritime Underground Railroad, which finds expression in this play.”
Rediker also notes, “When people of color gained their freedom, the number of jobs opened to them were small, especially the crafts, which were controlled by whites. They didn’t have great opportunities. So they moved into the most proletarianized kind of labor”—including work on slave ships, which sometimes employed free black sailors.
The Liquid Plain’s combination of an American-born escaped slave, an African-born escaped woman and a trio of sailors who are, respectively, white American, black English and white Irish may strike us as unusual. But Rediker finds that, “Naomi got it right with an emotional depth that I could never manage. She explores the inner life of these people, these shipmates, these people from the docks, this motley crew, and I think she just does a brilliant job of it.”