Actor Mikéah Jennings unpacks his powerful performance
Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck: A History Play About 2017 is an epic, scorching, and surreal satire of white liberalism in the era of Trump. It takes place at that ominous juncture in recent American history when the newly elected President pressured FBI Director James Comey for loyalty, Comey refused, and Trump canned him. With a massive snowstorm imminent, seven forty-something liberals gather in an Upstate New York country home and flailingly try to cope.
It’s like Big Chill except maybe it’s democracy that just died.
The play is challenging to follow because there’s a lot going on in it (some might say too much)—with time leaps, topic shifts, stylistic lurches, derailed trains of thought—all staged with consumate flair by Director Saheem Ali. But what Washburn has done in the writing that’s so brilliant is capture viscerally and relatably the world that really is too much with us: a world where authoritarianism has triumphed, a world we flounder to make sense of, a world where liberalism has lost its moorings, the world we are awash in.
Six of Shipwreck’s hilariously hand-wringing liberals—Jim (Jeff Biehl), Allie (Jennifer Dundas), Jools (Anna Ishida), Teresa (Alyssa Keegan), Andrew (Tom Story), and Richard (James Whalen)—are relatively self-aware about their whiteness. The ethnicity of the seventh, Louis (a commanding Jon Hudson Odom), is unspecified (the script says only “a person of color”). But Louis fits right in because he and Andrew are a gay couple and both lawyers and really, really rich.
As Jim, the most radical among them, admits, “We’re living in a class bubble.”
Washburn has scripted the group’s banter with brittle wit, and in it we can catch their self-consciousness about what Allie calls “ultra white liberal performativity”—which, she reminds them, they had agreed to avoid. As Allie observes, “white liberals cannot talk about race”—meaning not that they shouldn’t but that they’re awkward-to-awful at it. Apropos Trump’s shocking victory, for instance, Allie says, “You know who wasn’t surprised by this? The black people. They saw Trump coming.” The stage direction that follows speaks volumes: “Everyone immediately becomes slightly but distinctly uncomfortable.”
Pitching these ineffectual liberals’ self-absorption into sharp relief, Washburn introduces us to Mark, a character whose point of view will emerge as pivotal. Mark was adopted as an orphan in Kenya by a white couple who owned a farm. Subsequently he was raised in an entirely white community. Mark does not interract with the country home cohort except to observe them, and in a series of riveting monologues he speaks directly to us the audience.
As I watched Mikéah Ernest Jennings’s powerful performance in the role on opening night (when one of his speeches landed with such impact that applause stopped the show), I sensed that his monologues were being played so personally it was as if they were meant for each individual in the audience. They connected unlike anything else in the show. Mark’s story was being told to us by an accomplished actor whose program bio declares his interest “in the inutility of the 4th wall” and who as a performance creator
collaborates with artists who reframe the conventional audience/performer relationship as a way to highlight the performance of the audience as an equally vital component of the theatrical ritual.
I realized I needed to know more from this performer’s perspective on this trenchant and timely play.
John: At the very beginning of the play Mark says: “Did I go through a brief period, after college, where I pretended I’d been raised by black folks in a black community? Yes I did. It was exhausting.” Do you remember your first thoughts when you read that?
Mikéah: Yes. I grew up first-generation Caribbean American in the rural Mojave Desert. It was just desert and sky. There was not another black family until I was 13. Like, there is no reflection, there is not another person that is going to tell you who and what you are. So reading Mark’s story, I was like, I understand this. It’s a story that I had not seen. And it’s a story that is very politically and racially complicated.
I was raised in a very black-positive household. We had black angels on our Christmas tree, we listened to calypso in the house. My parents were very much Caribbean-identified and that was my history. But for someone like Mark, I absolutely understood growing up on a farm in a rural environment and not having anyone who looks like you and then navigating a world where people around you are also navigating that new world because they don’t know how to deal with you.
Mark’s part is written as monologues at different ages. Mark’s white father Lawrence (a sympathetic James Whalen) also has several monologues. At one point, Lawrence quotes Mark as a boy saying to his father, “‘You got me because you couldn’t afford a white baby’”—and Lawrence admits it’s true.
I think Mark hears that. I think he knows that. And this is the brilliance of what Anne has juxtaposed, ’cause you’re not dealing with the seven other people who are now sitting in the farmhouse talking and having this conversation.
During the play Mark imagines a lot. You have several powerful monologues where you imagine what it would have been like to be enslaved. You say at one point, “It’s seventeen/eighteen hundred and whatever. And I’m property. Actual, legal, property.” You go on to imagine working the fields, being whipped, having your daughter wrenched from your arms and sold. To us the audience those speeches are devastating. Would you talk about how it feels to play them?
It’s not just Mark imagining what those things are as an adult. It’s him imagining his younger self imagining them. It’s the 16-year-old Mark who doesn’t get it yet, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what he’s doing. When he says, “Yeah. I guess I’m tough enough,” it’s not a punchline. It’s awkward. And it’s weird
It’s like watching the 16-year-old try to find himself in history, trying to give himself a history.
It’s horrible. It’s horrible.
As I was watching Shipwreck, it occurred to me that the character of Mark was functioning like a lens through which to read what was going on in the rest of the play—especially the scenes in the country home among the seven friends Louis calls “us liberal privileged bubbled us.” At times Mark walks into those scenes silently, just observing. And as the play went on he began to seem to me like a kind of reality check on how they all think and act. During rehearsals were there discussions of Mark’s place in the play as a whole?
Absolutely. I was rehearsed very separately from the other seven. Their scenes are so dense, and they’re incredible performers. The first time we did a full runthrough, I was like, Oh, I’m in a totally different play than they are. I watch what they’re doing and it’s vivid and it’s alive and it’s percolating. Then all of a sudden, I’m talking to the audience, and it’s a really, really different play.
There were some line changes to clarify the relationship between Mark and these people. Where we have arrived is that they are not fantasy; they are projections of Mark’s psyche and assumptions. He’s like, I know these people; these are people I know and so they’re real. And I love that.
In the end he’s like, These are people who are like my friends. I think that’s important. Mark is creating this world and these people, and these very dense, very heavy conversations are coming out of him trying to understand his life and his selfhood and his position in the world.
You also have a very funny fictional scene set in 2003 where you appear suited up as President George W. Bush and visit the real estate mogul Donald Trump to persuade him to support the Iraq War. Dubya’s a part that looked fun to play. Was it?
Yes. Weird. But yes. It was very specifically in the script Anne wrote that we were not supposed to illustrate or exaggerate any characteristics that would suggest we’re George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Don’t do an impression, don’t do anything suggestive or broad. And Anne and Saheem have that brilliant grand writer-director point of view that’s very specific and performance-based: Imagine you are these grand titans and you believe in what you’re saying. It’s super simple, it’s really pure. And it’s gonzo. It’s big. But it’s fun to play. And Jeff Biehl is fucking fantastic.
The question of representation in theater is a button so hot it burns. Here in DC in particular, stories about black lives told by black artists matter. In Shipwreck, Mark knows the white liberal world so intimately he helps us see it. He is a black character written by a white writer in order to reveal white lives. How do you think about that fact?
I know it is going to be problematic. I know it is going to be contested. That was my thought from the moment I read the script and accepted the part. When we started rehearsals I asked Anne very explicitly, Are you prepared for people asking why you think you can speak to this experience in a really emotional and psychological way in this play? She’s fabulous ’cause she was like, It just happened. And I can accept that because it makes sense.
My parents moved to the U.S. in their early twenties. They had three sons. We knew our history, my parents took us to the library, we did the whole nines. We knew what North American historical blackness was, but I grew up in a majority white community. That’s where I was built. So when I matriculated into society there was a collision of ideas. All of a sudden people were like, Who are you? Where are you from? And when I read the script I was like, I know this is going to be complicated. I know this is going to be like fucked up. I know people are going to be upset about this. Acculturation is something that black people do not talk about, you know? And it’s very real.
I have friends who have run into this same kind of collision, like: Where do you fit? Because if you’re not black enough, then when you meet black people, they’re like: Oh, you’re not black enough. You’re like: Okay. However, you’re never going to be white. Never. That’s just, you know, your skin. So then, where are you? For Mark it’s like: What is the function of my existence right now? Why am I here? That was something that was so exciting to me and dangerous. This voice makes sense to me.
Mikéah Ernest Jennings is an art theater and performance creator from the Mojave Desert living in New York making his debut at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Interested mainly in the inutility of the 4th wall, he collaborates with artists who reframe the conventional audience/performer relationship as a way to highlight the performance of the audience as an equally vital component of the theatrical ritual. Mikéah has collaborated with Annie B. Parsons/Big Dance (17C), Lila Neugebauer (The Signature Plays), Charlotte Brathwaite, Young Jean Lee (The Shipment), Dan Rothenberg/Pig Iron (I Promised Myself to Live Faster), Caden Manson/Big Art Group (SOS, Deadset, Flicker, House of No More), and Jay Scheib (Platonov, World of Wires, Bellona). Nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play, The Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia, for The Legend of Georgia McBride, Mikeah has taught performance at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and The New School.
Running Time: Three hours 10 minutes, including one intermission.