American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SLAVE SHIP (1966). Written by Amiri Baraka [LeRoi Jones] (1934- ), the play Slave Ship was first produced by the Spirit House Movers and Players Theatre Company in 1967 at the Chelsea Theatre, New York City. It traces the historical Middle Passage taken by slaves from West Africa to the New World and their experiences once they arrive on American soil. The first half of the play is set in the hold of a slave ship on the Middle Passage. The inhabitants of the hold curse each other and curse the African gods, and some even kill themselves and their own children. After their arrival in the New World, the slaves participate in Nat Turner’s uprising but are defeated when Tom, an old plantation slave, betrays the uprising for a pork chop from his master. After being defeated, the slaves regroup and hold a celebration, which involves a mixture of Yoruba chanting and dancing, in which the audience is invited to participate. The severed head of Tom is thrown into the midst of the revels, exciting the slaves to greater exuberance and frenzy. The play briefly shifts back to the hold of the ship so the audience can hear the “killed white voice” of their captors.

Baraka evokes the sensation of the sea through sound effects and the “sea smells” simulated through the use of incense. The shouts of the white sailors and the ship’s captain establish the ship’s route on the Middle Passage. [See also AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; DRAMA OF THE SEA; MIDDLE PASSAGE; SLAVE NARRATIVES]

David Jortner