Salt Water People in the Wall Street Journal

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

Some may recall the 1990 Billy Joel song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” which chronicled the struggles of Long Island’s fishermen during a period when they faced increased regulations and other hardships. As Mr. Joel sang, “There ain’t much future for a man who works the sea.”

Now, almost three decades later, Jake Rosenberg, a 23-year-old New York playwright, has taken up the cause of the island’s fisherman once again, with a work that looks at how the situation remains as challenging as ever.

But Mr. Rosenberg’s play, “Salt Water People”—presented in a staged reading Friday at City Lore, a nonprofit Manhattan-based center for urban folk culture—is more than just a story of struggle.

It also explores the culture and even dialect of the fishermen—specifically, the baymen of the East Hampton area, part of a group often dubbed Bonackers in reference to the local Accabonac harbor. The group can trace its roots to Colonial times, when settlers came to the East End of Long Island from England.

“I’m very attracted to stories about traditional communities,” said Mr. Rosenberg, who also works at City Lore and is co-founder of American Lore Theater, the two-year-old New York company directly responsible for producing “Salt Water People.”

While “Salt Water People” is based in reality and includes snippets of dialect—one character says “ayuh” instead of “yes”—it tells a story that is purely the playwright’s own. Mr. Rosenberg has created a fictional family of baymen, capturing key moments in their lives both in 1991 and at the time of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Moreover, Mr. Rosenberg weaves in an element of the mystical. A sea creature with humanlike features, almost the East End equivalent of a mermaid, has a decisive part in the drama.

For City Lore Executive Director Steve Zeitlin, this theatrical approach illuminates folk culture in ways that a museum exhibit can’t.

“You need to do that to bring it to life,” he said.

Still, the situation that “Salt Water People” speaks to is indeed harsh. Those who have worked in or studied Long Island’s baymen fishing community say its numbers have dropped precipitously—from thousands who made their living decades ago to a few hundred at best today.

Regulations that limit baymen’s catch continue to be an issue, say those who follow the situation. But so does the high cost of Long Island real estate, particularly in the ever-exclusive East End. A bayman or woman can’t afford a house based on what they earn.

“A communal way of life is being destroyed,” said Arnold Leo, an East Hampton resident who was secretary of a local baymen’s association for many years.

Mr. Rosenberg, who grew up in San Francisco, said the more he learned about the baymen’s plight, the more he found it hard to fathom. “There was a time this was the dominant industry of Long Island,” he said.

The playwright’s eventual hope is to take a production of “Salt Water People” to Long Island and possibly involve baymen as actors. Although his research included talking with those in the fishing community, he said he believes this step is necessary to ensure the play is as authentic as possible.

“You have to bring it to the community,” he said.

Write to Charles Passy at

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