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S. 3, Ep. 5: Bodies in the Moonlight by Langston Hughes

The West African Coast, 1927: With their ship stuck in port for over a month, half the crew sick with fever, and food running low, two best friends fall for the same woman.​ Cast (in speaking order): JON HAMM as The Narrator. TYLER HANSEN as The Chief Mate / The Second Cook... Read More

18 mins
Jan 22



The West African Coast, 1927: With their ship stuck in port for over a month, half the crew sick with fever, and food running low, two best friends fall for the same woman.​

Cast (in speaking order):

JON HAMM as The Narrator

TYLER HANSEN as The Chief Mate / The Second Cook

NATHAN MALIN as The Young Swede

DAVID ZAYAS as Porto Rico


JOHN SKELLEY as The Jamaican Baker / Wireless Man

with SAM TSOUTSOUVAS, the voice of RPR


Bodies in the Moonlight

By Langston Hughes

NARRATOR. Sailors call it the Fever Coast– that two or three thousand miles of West Africa from Senegal to Luanda. For four weeks now, our ship had been anchored "in the stream" loading cocoa beans. There had been some mix-up in the schedule and the old man had no orders to move on. Six of our men had been sent ashore with tropic fever to the European hospital. The potatoes were running out and the captain no longer issued money to his mixed crew.

The sun blazed by day and the moon shone at night and more men fell ill with the fever. Or developed venereal diseases… and there our steamer lay tossing wearily in the blue water, a half-mile off the coast beyond the beating surf.

At eighteen when one is a rover, the world is wonderful; I was a messboy on my first trip to sea. I had thrown all my schoolbooks overboard and for several months I had not written to my parents. People I had known as a boy had not been kind to me, I thought, but now I was free. The sea had taken me like a mother and a freight ship named the West Illana had become my home.

The sun was setting, and the sea and sky were all stained with blood. With a wet cloth full of soap powder, I scoured the sink in my mess pantry, where I had just finished washing the dinner dishes. Then I went into the saloon and closed the portholes. The water was purple now and the sky blue-violet. The first stars popped out. The chief mate came down looking for his cap. It was on the deck under the table and he stooped to pick it up.

CHIEF MATE. Christ, I'm tired o' this damn place.

NARRATOR. …He said. Then,

CHIEF MATE. Did ya leave any ginger cakes out for lunch tonight?

NARRATOR. “No," I replied. "The steward didn't gimme any."

CHIEF MATE. Lousy runt! Food must be gettin' low.

NARRATOR. I heard the chief mate going up the iron stairs to his room. I threw my white coat in a drawer of the buffet, carefully concealed a flat can of salmon in my shirt, and went on deck. It was dark.

SWEDE. Goin' ashore?

NARRATOR. The young Swede on watch at the gangplank called out. "Sure," I replied.

SWEDE. Well, I ain't. Them women over there's got me burnt up. You and Porto Rico better watch out!

NARRATOR. “You the one that oughta been careful," I laughed back. "Jesus, you're dumb! Porto Rico and I are in love."

SWEDE. Yea, and with the same girl. You had better watch out now.

NARRATOR. I went on down the deck past the lighted ports of the engineers' room and around to the door of the officers' mess. "Ain't you through yet?" I said.

PORTO RICO. Hell, no! The damn bosun was late comin' to eat again but the way I told him about it, he won't be late no more.

NARRATOR. Porto Rico was washing knives and forks in a very dirty bucket of water.

PORTO RICO. ¡Cabrón! Just when I wanted to go ashore! NARRATOR. As though he didn't go ashore every night.

PORTO RICO. I'm goin' on back aft. Hurry up and we'll catch the next boat when it comes out. I s'pose you’re gonna see her, too.

NARRATOR. ...What you gonna take her tonight? PORTO RICO. ¡Hombre!

NARRATOR. Then in a whisper,

PORTO RICO. Couldn't save a damn thing but a hunk o' bread today. Looks like to me in two weeks won't be nothin' to eat on this tank. Ain't much here now… but I got a bar o' soap to give that mutty boatman if he takes us ashore. I'm gonna——

NARRATOR. ——The conversation died as the steward came down the corridor. He stepped into the galley where the Jamaican cooks were peeling potatoes. I went on back aft. Five bells.

For a cake of soap as payment we were paddled ashore. An African in a loincloth at either end, Porto Rico and I in the middle, we sat in a narrow little canoe so deep in water that one momentarily expected it to fill with the sea and sink. Under the stars. The ocean deep and evil. The lights of the West Illana at our stern. The palm-fringed line of shore and the boom of surf ahead. Off on the edge of the water the moon rose round, golden, and lazy. The sky seemed heavy with its weight of stars and the sea deep and weary, lipping the sides of the little boat.

PORTO RICO. Estoy cansado.

NARRATOR. …Said Porto Rico. "I wish I was back in New York. I swear I do," I said. But the excitement of landing in the surf loosened us from our momentary melancholy and we stood on the sand not far from the line of palm trees.

The canoe and its two silent natives put to sea again. "Gimme a cigarette." Feet crossing the hard sand. "Gimme a cigarette." We were going to see Nunuma. Nunuma —because I remember her I tell this story. Because of her… and the scar across my throat.

At eighteen, women are strange bodies-- strange, taunting, desirable bodies. Flesh and spirit. And the song is in the flesh even more than in the spirit. We saw Nunuma the first day my buddy and I went ashore at Lonbar. A slender dark young girl, ripe breasts bare, a single strip of cloth about her body, squatted on her heels behind a pile of yams in the public square. There were many old women and young girls in the marketplace, but none other like Nunuma, delicate and lovely as a jungle flower, beautiful as a poem.

PORTO RICO. Oh, you sweetie.

NARRATOR. …had said Porto Rico. And the sailors bought all her yams. That night when we came ashore again, a little barefoot boy, professional guide, showed Porto Rico and me to Nunuma's house– the usual native hut with its thatched roof and low eaves. She stood in the doorway, bright cloth about her body, face dusk-bronze in the moonlight. O, lovely flower growing too near the sea! Sailors must have passed her way before that night, but Nunuma had received none of them.

NUNUMA. Me no like white sailor man.

NARRATOR. …She explained later in her West African English.

NUNUMA. He rough and mean.

NARRATOR. The little boy guide padded off down the grassy road, coin in hand. In a few minutes another girl appeared from somewhere, joined us, and we sat down together in front of the hut. We four. The other girl never told her name. She was solid and well-built, but not beautiful like Nunuma. There wasn't much to say. Hands touch. Lips touch. The moon burned. By and by we went into the hut ...In the morning, Porto Rico and I gave each of the girls two shillings when we left.

Wide and white and cool the dawn as the slender native canoe paddled us back to the ship an hour before breakfast. Wide and cool and green the morning sea as the white sun shot up. The West Illana lay solemnly at anchor. We paid the boatman and were about to climb the gangway stairs when a black girl ran down.

YOUNG SWEDE. Get the hell off here!

NARRATOR. It was the young Swede’s voice.

YOUNG SWEDE. I should think the men would see enough o' you women on shore without bringing you on the damn ship. Don't lemme catch you here again.

NARRATOR. And he swore roundly several great seamen's oaths. The woman was very much frightened. She chattered to the boatmen as they paddled away and her hands trembled. She was fat. Her face was not beautiful like Nunuma's.

That day the sun boiled. The winches rattled with their loads of cocoa beans lifted from native boats. The Kru-boys chipped the deck. And two sailors fell ill with the fever. That night Porto Rico and I went to see Nunuma —and the other girl. Neither one of us cared about the name of the other girl. She was just a body —a used thing of the port towns.

Days, nights. Nights, days. The vast impersonal African sky, now full of stars, now white with sun. The West Illana quiet and sober. Cocoa beans all loaded. Six men with fever ashore in the hospital. No orders. The captain impatient. Mahogany logs to load in Grand-Bassam. Christ, when are we moving on? The chief cook sick with a disease of the whorehouses. Steward worried about the food running low.

JAMAICAN BAKER. Nobody but a fool goes to sea anyhow.

NARRATOR. says the Jamaican baker. Porto Rico and I were ashore every night. Almost every afternoon between meals —ashore ...Nunuma. Nunuma ...Oh, mother of God! ...Sometimes I see her alone. Sometimes she and Porto Rico, I and the other girl are together. Sometimes she and Porto Rico alone are with each other ...Nunuma! Nunuma! ...I have given her the red slippers I bought in Dakar. Porto Rico has given her the Spanish shawl he picked up at Cádiz coming down. And now that we have no money we smuggle her stolen food from the ship's pantries. And Porto Rico gave her a string of beads.

He is my friend but I wish he wouldn't put his hands on Nunuma. Nunuma is beautiful and Porto Rico is not a man to know beauty. Besides he is jealous. One morning in the galley he asked me why I didn't fool with the other girl sometimes and leave him Nunuma alone. “You don't own the woman, do you?" I demanded. His large hands slowly clenched to fists and a sneer crossed his face.


NARRATOR. …Yelled the second cook. "Hell," I said, "we ain't gonna fight about a port-town girl."


NARRATOR. …Porto Rico replied, and smiled.

Nunuma was beautiful. Nunuma's face was like a flower in the moonlight and her body soft and slender. At eighteen one has not known many soft bodies of women. One has not often kissed lips like the petals of pansies — unless one has been a sailor like Porto Rico. Porto Rico, hard, and rough, and strong, with a knowledge of women in half the port towns of the world. Porto Rico, who did not know that Nunuma's face was like a flower in the moonlight. Who did not care that her body was soft and tender.

I wanted Porto Rico to keep his hands off Nunuma's body. He shouldn't touch her. He who had known so many dirty women ...Yet Porto Rico was my friend ...But Nunuma was beautiful. At eighteen one can go mad over the beauty of a woman. And forget a friend ...I believe I loved Nunuma.

Feet crossing the dry sand. We were going to see her. “Gimme a cigarette," I repeated. Feet crossing the dry sand carrying one to the line of palm trees, carrying one to the grassy roads running between the thatched huts. Native fires gleaming, sailors in white pants drinking palm wine and feeling the breasts of girls, laughing. Africans with bare black feet, single cloths about their bodies, walking under the moon. The ship's carpenter drunk beneath a mango tree.

WIRELESS-MAN. Say, mess, did you hear the news?

NARRATOR. …Calls the young wireless-man passing in the road. We stop.


NARRATOR. …Says Porto Rico

PORTO RICO. What is it?

WIRELESS-MAN. Haul anchor tomorrow for Grand-Bassam. Old Man's glad as hell. Lord knows I am. Die before I'd make another trip down this coast.

NARRATOR. Sailing in the morning ...Nunuma. Nunuma ...Grand-Bassam, Accra, Freetown, Cape Verde Islands, New York ...Nunuma! Nunuma! ...Sailing in the morning.

She is standing in her doorway, the Spanish shawl wrapped about her body instead of the customary bright cloth. Her lips are red and her face like a flower, dusk dark in the moonlight.

NUNUMA. 'Lo kid.

NARRATOR. She smiles.

PORTO RICO. You're vamping the boys tonight. NARRATOR. Look just like Broadway.

NUNUMA. Me no like white sailor man.

NARRATOR. Bantering talk. Grotesque gifts to offer an African flower-girl—— Porto Rico undoes his half loaf of bread and extends it awkwardly. I take a flat can of salmon from inside my shirt. We offer them both. She laughs and takes them inside the hut. Silence. When she comes out we sit down on the ground. And she is in the middle between we two men. The other girl is not there. Nunuma's body is slender and brown. She sings a tribal song about the moon. She points to the moon. Hands touch. Lips touch. A dusk-dark girl in the golden night, my buddy and I. "We're sailing in the morning," I said.

PORTO RICO. Yep, we haul anchor. We leave. NUNUMA. Mornin' go? In mornin' ship he go?

NARRATOR. Nunuma's eyes grew wide in the moonlight. NUNUMA. Then you love me tonight. You love me tonight.

NARRATOR. And her lips were like flower petals. But she clasped her hands and the dark face looked into the moonlight. Her warm brown body sat between us. Her twin breasts pointed into the moonlight. Her slender feet in red slippers. Her eyes looking at the moon.

PORTO RICO. You go back to the ship. And get your sleep.

NARRATOR. "No," I said.

PORTO RICO. Go back to the ship, kid.

NARRATOR. He and I both rose. One can be a fool over a woman at eighteen. “I won't go back! You can't make me!" My hand sought the clasp-knife in my pocket.

PORTO RICO. Hijo de la––

NARRATOR. ––He began an oath in Spanish and his lips trembled. Like a dart of moonlight, Nunuma ran, without a scream, into her hut. "Keep your hands off her," I shouted. "Keep your damn dirty hands off her!" Before my fingers could leave my pocket, something silver flashed in the pale light. A flood of oaths in English and Spanish drenched my ears. And a warm red fluid ran from my throat, stained and spread on the whiteness of my shirt, dripped on my suddenly weak and useless hands.

"Keep your hands ...off ...her," I stammered. "Keep your hands off ...Nunuma." And I fell face forward in the grass and dug my fingers in the earth and cried, "Keep your damn dirty hands off her," until the world lurched and grew dark. And all the stars fell down. At sea in a bunk with a bandage about my neck. Porto Rico saying,

PORTO RICO. Jesus, kid, you know I didn't mean to do it. I was crazy, that's all.

NARRATOR. White caps of waves through the portholes. White blazing sun in the sky. Those things are almost forgotten now… but the scar, and the memory of Nunuma, make me tell this story.

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