Director Wendy Ward clearly remembers the moment that sparked her company's upcoming play, I Wish You a Boat. It was in a New York classroom in 2005. As one of Ward's students traced her ancestors' journeys to North America during a performance, she gently guided paper boats over a map of the world. When the last of her little crafts didn't make it across the ocean, the room went still.
Ward responded by asking her students to improvise, playing a group of passengers on a ship as a storm arose and worsened.
"It was so evocative, so emotional," Ward recalls. "And they acted it in silence."
Then the class started researching nineteenth-century nautical disasters. Drawing from sources including harbor logs, formal inquests, and newspaper accounts, they devised a composite ship, the Merry Rose, filled with European exiles seeking a future in the new world, whose fates will change drastically in eight brief minutes.
"That's how long it took the S.S. Stella to sink," Ward notes. "People were just wiped off that ship into the sea."
I Wish You a Boat catalogs the lives and legacies of the Merry Rose's passengers and crew—their dreams as well as their disaster. The research allowed Ward and her students to reflect on how fraught immigration has been throughout our country's history, long before the isolationist slurs of the current campaign season.
In February, Ward Theatre Company's first local production, the intimate Jacuzzi, demonstrated an uncanny emotional reality at point-blank range. Its savvy set design transformed a nondescript Durham office park into an isolated mountain ski lodge. As I interviewed Ward at her studio recently, I glimpsed design and technical elements that will likewise transport viewers to a ship at sea.
At a time when many Americans' information on immigration comes from a distance, through the tales of grandparents or news accounts from Syria or Sudan, I Wish You a Boat depicts the experiences of expatriates and the stakes of their decisions firsthand. Ward has personal experience with immigration. She moved to Australia from the United States for a job in 2012, and she recalls underestimating the challenges, even in an English-speaking country she was already familiar with.
"It's a very emotional thing to leave your homeland," she says. "These people were leaving their homes, forever, to go to America. It meant everything to them." As the historical record reflects, their chances of survival at sea hinged in large part on their socioecomic class, and I Wish You a Boat contrasts the experiences of the passengers in first class with those who dwelled below decks.
At a time when an English referendum can rock global financial markets and cast a shadow on an American election, Ward's show underlines the degree to which we're all in steerage—all in the same boat.
This article appeared in print with the headline "You Must Build a Boat"