Tag Archives: water

“That ain’t the Bermuda triangle you in…

…that’s the Goddamn middle passage.”

CLIVE: This the middle passage don’t you forget it, instead you ride it, you ride them, get along, don’t get swallowed up, left out at sea.

The middle passage is the second part of the three-part transatlantic trade, which lasted from the 1500s until 1807, when the transatlantic slave trade ended. Here are a few excerpts from this longer explanation.

The captives were about to embark on the infamous Middle Passage, so called
because it was the middle leg of a three-part voyage — a voyage that began and
ended in Europe. The first leg of the voyage carried a cargo that often included
iron, cloth, brandy, firearms, and gunpowder. Upon landing on Africa’s “slave
coast,” the cargo was exchanged for Africans. Fully loaded with its human cargo,
the ship set sail for the Americas, where the slaves were exchanged for sugar,
tobacco, or some other product. The final leg brought the ship back to
Europe.

The slaves were branded with hot irons and restrained with shackles. Their
“living quarters” was often a deck within the ship that had less than five feet
of headroom — and throughout a large portion of the deck, sleeping shelves cut
this limited amount of headroom in half.4 Lack of standing headroom was the
least of the slaves’ problems, though. With 300 to 400 people packed in a tiny
area5 — an area with little ventilation and, in some cases, not even enough
space to place buckets for human waste — disease was prevalent. According to
Equiano, “The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the
number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn
himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the
air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and
brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died.”

Award-winning African American playwright August Wilson creates the idea of a “City of Bones” in his famed century cycle, which are ten plays spanning the 20th century that depict the African American experience in the Hill district of Pittsburgh. In this interview, Wilson talks about the city of bones and its relation to Citizen, one of the characters from Gem of the Ocean:

“Those bones,” August Wilson will tell you, “are symbolically representative ofthe Africans who were lost during the Middle Passage”—the voyage of slaves from Africa to the Sea Islands and other destinations—“those whose ships sank into the ocean, the Africans who never made it to America. We find out through the course of the play what it is Citizen has done, and why he did this. Aunt Ester leads him to the answer. He has to find out what his duty is, and through that he can be redeemed.” 

Here are some images of slaves, slave ships, and the city of bones:

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Below is a painting by J. M. W. Turner called The Slave Ship or Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon Coming On (1840), as well as a close-up of an area of detail in the same painting.

And an excerpt from a poem that Turner wrote which was shown in tandem with the painting.

“Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and
fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your
decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope,
Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”

More background on the painting can be found here.

A Feeling of Drowning & Surfacing

In the course of the play, water takes a central imagistic role — sometimes it’s a stand-in for peace and calm, other times it’s explicitly a marker of death by drowning. Director Shawn LaCount has said that all the characters in the play feel, at some point, the pressure and need for air that a person caught underwater would encounter. They are all looking for a way to swim, to succeed, to deal with the circumstances of their lives. Only Anthony finds his way to the surface; Fran and Nicole may reach it as well. There are moments where each character might have the potential to surface, to breathe again, and moments where the pressure nearly crushes them.

A selective list of water images evoked throughout the play: the Middle Passage; Davey’s drowning; Mike’s implied trauma in the water connected to Davey’s death; the feeling of invincibility in the water quickly transformed to mortality; Anthony’s love of the “black hole” in the harbor beyond the lighthouse; the way Lisa hears water sometimes; the way the lighthouse and harbor feel peaceful to Anthony and Nicole; the implication that the most expensive houses in town are the ones nearest the water; Aline’s feeling that the ocean is peaceful; Lisa’s Caribbean vacation….

Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco and Lighting Designer Jen Rock are also playing with the feeling of water, and of light filtering through water, as a component of the play in production.

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The work of  artist Jason De Caires Taylor is particularly evocative here. He creates concrete statues of people in everyday positions, installs them underwater, and waits for corals to create sculptural reefs. His installations change in shape and color over time, but the human forms remain.

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On the feeling of drowning…

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Anthony, surfacing…

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