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Thought for the Week: The Return of Benjamin Lay

On Saturday 8 July I went to the Finborough Theatre to see the last performance of The Return of Benjamin Lay. Benjamin Lay was played by Mark Povinelli, the President of the Little People of America. This tells you something about the actor and Benjamin Lay himself. They are both little people.

Benjamin lived from 1682 - 1759 and was an author, farmer, vegetarian, feminist, and had a deep concern for the ethical treatment of animals. These attributes would not be so unusual now but were pioneering in his time. Above all he was actively against slavery and the slave trade. He was also a Quaker and maybe this is what drove his conscience but it made him very unpopular in society and amongst Quakers because he spoke his truth acting it out sometimes in Meetings as when he plunged a sword into a Bible containing a bladder of blood red juice which splattered over nearby Quakers.

Growing up in Copford, near Colchester, he became a sailor and started a store in Barbados which was then fabulously rich bringing in more wealth to the Crown than the rest of the Empire put together, a wealth based on the sugar trade and dependent on the labour of slaves. He spoke up against it on seeing a neighbour stripping, whipping and hanging his slave up by the wrists for telling other slaves about a slave revolt on the island. This had no effect and he was removed from the island and went to Pennsylvania, a then Quaker colony, where he spoke in Quaker meetings against slavery and the evils of trade based on slavery in very graphic terms. He lived in a cave because he would not use anything made by slaves. It was more than many Quakers could bear and he was disowned and guards were hired to keep him from attending Quaker meetings.

In the play he asks to be readmitted to the Quaker meetings. In a 75 minute solo performance of extraordinary intensity he engages with each member of the audience staring into our eyes asking us questions and challenging our consciences.

He ends with the words

“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…

Let’s have a good look at one another, and keep looking until we see. Keep listening until we hear.

Friends, what canst thou say?

Better yet, what canst thou do?”

Keith Scott, member of the Quaker faith

Date: Monday 17th July 2023


Saturday 7th September 2024 International Peace Day

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