From the moment the figure of Benjamin Lay appears silent and still among the audience to the closing scene, Mark Povinelli holds us in thrall. The new play, The Return of Benjamin Lay, tells the story of the extraordinary life of the Quaker person with dwarfism who became the first revolutionary abolitionist.
In the play’s opening scene, set in the Quaker Meeting House, Lay is an older man. He pleads to be returned to the fold, having been cast out “like a leper” for challenging the “weighty Quakers” who owned slaves.
Not only did he challenge them, but he also used guerrilla tactics to sabotage and embarrass them. Benjamin agrees before the other Quakers that he has had to behave shockingly to ram home his point. This is a man who will not bow to any master.
After a false start as an apprentice glover, which he hated, Benjamin spent a dozen years at sea. During his time at sea, Benjamin was taught to read by a fellow crew member.
In later life he wrote a book opposing slavery, which Benjamin Franklin, who he had once met, arranged for publication. In one of many memorable scenes, Lay takes on Franklin, who was hiding the fact that he was a slave owner.
“It is a crime against the moral order of creation! I refuse to partake of thy unrighteousness. I leave you, Ben Franklin, to your darkness,” he says.
The audience is then transported to Bridgetown, Barbados, where Benjamin’s ship has docked, in a clever adaptation of the simple but highly effective stage set.
He understands how the sugar in a cup of tea is, in reality, the blood of African slaves, some of whom he has befriended. Lay realises that his time at sea is finished.
He marries Sarah Smith, who he met in Deptford, who is his own size and fiery just like him. His love for her is played out with wit and gentle humour. They then plan to devote their energy to fighting for the abolition of slavery and head for North America.
In an angry aside Benjamin says, “When we sail . . . toward our new home, Philadelphia, I can smell the slave ship before I see it. A Quaker owns the ship, and another runs the auction.”
In later life, Benjamin and Sarah move into a cave where he keeps around 200 books he has acquired. In a tragic scene, he blames himself for the decision after she succumbs to illness.
The climax of The Return of Benjamin Lay relates to one of his most extraordinary acts. Benjamin enters a meeting in Pennsylvania dressed in a specially made military outfit.
He calls out the ‘weighty Quakers’ in a fiery speech, then, with a small, concealed sword, pierces a bladder filled with pokeberry juice to simulate blood hidden in a book he is carrying. In the chaos that ensues, he is expelled by the Quakers.
Naomi Wallace and Marcus Rediker have constructed a powerful and deeply moving play wonderfully performed by Mark Povinelli.
The play helps to rescue Benjamin Lay from obscurity by shining a spotlight on his moral and physical courage. The last words remain with Benjamin Lay, “I am ready to join hands, to build this new Jerusalem with you right here, right now. Come then. Join me.
“We can make the finest work of one another, loving and levelling all things, great and small.
“Come stand with me. Let’s talk. Keep looking until we see. Keep listening until we hear. Friends, what dost thou say? Better yet, what canst we do?”
The Return of Benjamin Lay is showing at the Finborough Theatre in London until 8 July. For details go to bit.ly/LayPlay