In ‘We Are the Wake,’ CU playwright brings the dead back to life
New Play Festival winner reveals the rich history of New York’s Hart Island.
On an island in New York City, there’s a mass grave where more than a million forgotten souls are buried—and almost no one knows about it.
Once the home of a tuberculosis hospital and then a boys’ reformatory school, Hart Island became a potter’s field during the Civil War, when anonymous fallen slaves and Confederate soldiers needed interment. Now, 150 years later, its shallow, unmarked graves are the final resting place for the city’s homeless, poor and anonymous.
CU Boulder undergraduate Ayla Sullivan, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns, heard the story of Hart Island a few years ago and knew they had to write a play about it someday. In February, Sullivan’s wish will come true: “We Are The Wake,” their 2017 New Play Festival-winning script about four people who visit Hart Island to find lost loved ones, will premiere in the Loft Theatre.
Sullivan’s desire to write a play about Hart Island stemmed from the uncomfortable fact that many of the bodies sent there today once belonged to people who, like Sullivan, were queer or minorities—people who are often marginalized, commoditized or ignored in our society. Even the island’s gravediggers are people who are overlooked and demonized by the public: Rikers Island prisoners, transported in shackles on a ferry and paid just 50 cents an hour.
“I read about people who found out their loved one passed but didn’t have the money to travel to New York City or pay for a funeral,” Sullivan says. “And in New York, if a dead body isn’t claimed within 48 hours, it has to go. So the loved one ended up in an unmarked grave, and the family couldn’t even see where their loved one was buried. That really struck me.”
Sullivan’s play follows four main characters who all have Hart Island in common. Ardella, a 19-year-old black woman named after a Langston Hughes poem, has a boyfriend who is imprisoned on Rikers and works at the grave site. Melinda, a journalist, is intrigued by the mysteries of the island and visits to uncover more details. Cora, named after Sullivan’s enslaved great-great-grandmother, sets out with her wife to find the grave of a long-lost trans sibling. And Dale, the oldest of them all, works on the island as a prison guard, haunted daily by his daughter’s unmarked grave.
“With Dale, I wanted to write a character who reminded me of people who don’t understand me—Baby Boomers who think I’m a snowflake and am so sensitive for wanting rights in this country,” Sullivan says. “I ended up feeling a lot of empathy for him.”
The subject matter might seem morbid, but at its heart, “We Are The Wake” seeks to show not all plays about black and queer Americans have to be about surviving death, violence and marginalization—they can also be about joy and celebration. The play is full of poetry, catchy 1990s R&B and queer-friendly hymns.
“I don’t like stories that are only what we have persevered through,” says Sullivan, who is half Vietnamese, half black, queer and trans. “I wanted this play to give names and faces and stories to all these unnamed dead, to celebrate them. So much of survival as a black, queer, trans person is carrying on the stories of those who came before you.”