- Arts and Humanities
- Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences
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It’s been more than six years in the making, but a play co-written by University of Pittsburgh history professor Marcus Rediker will make its debut Tuesday in London’s Finborough Theatre.
The play, titled “The Return of Benjamin Lay,” is a one-man show starring actor Mark Povinelli, who is also the president of the Little People of America. The plot finds Lay, a man with dwarfism who often referred to himself as “Little Benjamin,” returning almost 300 years after his death to confront those who suppressed his beliefs and to seek readmittance to the Quakers.
Rediker began writing the play in 2017, when he and playwright Naomi Wallace were set to give a joint lecture in Berlin at a conference. They intended on having an actor dressed as Lay interrupt the lecture midway through, but conference organizers balked at the idea when it came to putting an actor with dwarfism on stage. Rediker and Wallace withdrew from the event in protest, and they turned the monologue they had planned for the Lay actor into their play.
Lay, who Rediker described as “the most fascinating historical person that most people have never heard of,” was born in England and emigrated to the British Pennsylvania colony. Once he settled in Abington, he was one of the earliest and most outspoken opponents of slavery, even before the Quakers organized against it. He also lived in Barbados for a brief time as a merchant, where he was unpopular for his anti-slavery views. Lay followed tenets of feminism and believed in vegetarianism long before those terms were properly defined.
His radical views led to his ouster from the Quakers and, as Rediker said, played a significant role in Lay being relatively unknown in the annals of American history.
“That movement, according to almost all the stories of abolition, was a project of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century, where these middle- and upper-class gentlemen imagine that it was just inhumane for the slave system to continue to operate. I mean there’s some truth to that, but Benjamin Lay doesn’t fit that story,” Rediker said.
Rediker first learned of Lay’s story while writing his book, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.” He found himself so fascinated by Lay that he decided to write a book focused solely on him: “The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf,” published in 2017.
The modern-day Abington Quakers invited Rediker to give a talk about Lay before his book published, which led to the group reconsidering Lay’s place in their history. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected a historical marker in Abington, and the Abington Friends Meeting Quakers unveiled a grave marker for Benjamin and his wife, Sarah.
Rediker’s primary research interest is “telling history from below,” a process by which history is examined from the vantage point of ordinary people and regular citizens, rather than focusing on leaders or great historical figures. He describes this philosophy as “the most democratic and inclusive kind of history because everyone counts. It seeks to study not the kings, philosophers and statesmen, who dominated history for so long, but ordinary multiracial working people, men and women, who built the world we live in.”
Lay was a provocative activist, not just for his own time, but even by today’s standards. Rediker described how he’d often disrupt meetings and confront slave owners directly and aggressively, even once going as far as taking a sword and stabbing it into a Bible filled with a bladder of red liquid as a demonstration to slave owners.
“He was a difficult person,” Rediker said, “because he was sure that he was right about these things. And you know what? He was.”
— Nick France, photography by Robert Boulton