Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

BWW Review: I WISH YOU A BOAT - Ward Theatre Company Explores Immigration, Class in Historical Play


In any election year but especially this one, certain topics are fraught with emotion and high stakes. Immigration is one of those topics, and theatre is a way to approach it safely but meaningfully.

As a theatre company that recently emigrated back to the United States from Australia, Ward Theatre Company is perhaps exceptionally well suited to explore immigration on the stage, and it does so through "I Wish You a Boat," its original and trademark production.

Running through August 28, "I Wish You a Boat" is the innovative story of the Merry Rose, a ship traveling from Southampton to Guernsey in 1897. Developed as a composite of the many ships that sank while traveling through the Atlantic during that time period, the play is separated into two parts. The first part takes place after the crash in a nautical courtroom, where officials are determining if there was any wrongdoing that caused the deaths of the many Merry Rose passengers who sank after the ship hit the Casquets (a group of rocks in the English Channel).

Interspersed throughout this first part and creating a bridge to the second are slow-motion snapshots of what occurred immediately before and during the crash. Watching these events so slowly recreates that "frozen-in-time" feeling we often experience during terrifying moments. Making it even more difficult is the fact that the theatre seats just one row of Audience members, so actors make frequent eye contact throughout their performance.

The first part of the play ends with the production's final words of English. The remainder of the play is the story of the immigrant "steerage" passengers, who hail from Albania, France, Poland, and the Ukraine - and speak accordingly.

It's telling that the first part of the play, which is all in a language I understand, was much less engaging than the second part, of which I knew maybe two or three words. The first scene shows the group of immigrants getting to know each other and playing games in the lower decks of the ship. I followed along, as they did, with gestures and tone of voice.

Then I saw them die.

The ship crashes; the immigrants fall to the floor from the impact. They try to escape, but they find they are locked in. You can even hear a gunshot from beyond the doors. Some of them lift their new friends onto stools or tables, but you watch each person lose consciousness as the water rises over his or her head. The ship sinks in eight minutes (a time based on an actual shipwreck), and you watch in real time.

(Of course there was no water - but you understand what is happening from the slow, empathetic movements of the actors.)

The play then moves backward, and you see the lives of each character before the Merry Rose. You see them packing for their journey and even getting married and having babies - again, not in English. You feel their hopes and dreams, though, understand their relationships and experience their joy - all from simple actions and exceptional acting. But you know they all die, trapped in a sinking ship because of their class and heritage.

It packs a powerful punch, especially in light of today's refugee crisis.

How did they do it?

They warm up for each performance by practicing slow motion movements; everyone has a different tempo, and it's important for them to practice matching that tempo. One actor said he learned to plié in order to keep his balance.

Only one of the actors spoke the language of her character (French). To create the dialogue of the second part of the play, they improvised the scenes in English and then scripted them in the actual languages. Most of the actors hired coaches to help them, but for the Albanian characters, there weren't any coaches available, so they learned the accent and proper "lilt" from YouTube videos.

To create such a unique production, the company researched actual shipwrecks and used real court testimony for the first part of the play. Some of the costumes are actual period clothing, and details (including locking the immigrants in the lower decks) are taken straight from history. The actors themselves work hard to keep their portrayals authentic, which is important in a historical play; they even had an audience member who told them she was related to someone who died on the Titanic, and one of the original cast members had lost family members in a shipwreck.

This dedication pays off; the result is a powerful play that manages to tell a story in words the audience can't even understand about events that happened over one hundred years ago - and make it extremely relevant.

Related Articles View More Raleigh Stories

Buy at the Theatre Shop

T-Shirts, Mugs, Phone Cases & More

From This Author Taryn Oesch

Taryn is a copyeditor and freelance writer in Raleigh, where she is a behind-the-scenes member of the theatre community. Her favorite plays/musicals are Next to (read more...)