In 1869 a one-armed Civil War veteran named John Wesley Powell led a party of explorers down the Green and Colorado Rivers, traversing what Powell would later tag the Grand Canyon. Never mind that the local Paiutes already had their own, way better name for the place—”Mountain Lying Down”—the trip was a big deal from a manifest-destiny point of view: the first time white men of European heritage had laid eyes on and mapped out that particular stretch of geological magnificence.
Relying to a great extent on Powell’s own record (first published in 1875 and still in print), Jaclyn Backhaus‘s 2015 play Men on Boats does a fairly scrupulous job of reconstructing the journey. Ten of the 11 original participants are represented (the exception being F.M. Bishop, cartographer). They retain their original names, jobs, histories, and, where it’s relevant, fates. They suffer the same privations and triumphs. Really, the only significant difference between Powell’s narrative and the way Backhaus depicts it is contained in a note from the script: “The characters in MEN ON BOATS were historically cisgender white males,” she writes. “The cast should be make [sic] up entirely of people who are not. I’m talking about racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid, and/or non-gender-conforming.”
Sure enough, there’s not a single WASP penis in any of the pants onstage at the American Theater Company, where Men on Boats is receiving a sharp Chicago premiere under the hand of ATC’s brand-new artistic director, Will Davis—nary an actor who fits the anatomical/racial/cultural profile of Powell and his compadres. Davis even had Stephanie Diaz and Emjoy Gavino of the Chicago Inclusion Project step in and do the casting, a move suggesting the theatrical equivalent of kashrut certification.
It’s a clever, comic, pointed idea, taking an archetypal moment in the construction of American identity (Who doesn’t think of the Grand Canyon when they think of America? Who doesn’t think of intrepid pathfinders?) and handing it over to people who were excluded from the construction crew. Hamilton is built on the same conceit, and Backhaus has every bit as much fun with it as Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda did. But, also like Miranda, she doesn’t settle for a simple inversion: that way lies the sailors-with-grass-skirts-and-coconut-shell-bras scene from South Pacific. No, while Backhaus takes solid pokes at the absurd temerity of white men who “discover” places that are already inhabited and name peaks as if they owned them and freak out at weird fauna and posture when they’re actually begging and grab the spoils of a group effort as if they’d accomplished it alone, neither she nor Davis nor Davis’s take-no-prisoners cast uses the opportunity to reduce Powell and company to cartoon colonialists. In fact, they seem, satirically but not subversively, to respect the men’s sense of themselves as adventurers challenging a harsh and (to them, anyway) unknown environment.
That respect is nowhere more apparent than in the rapids-shooting scenes, wonderfully choreographed to convey precision and collaboration in circumstances of authentic-feeling danger, where small choices can wreck a craft or get somebody drowned. At least for the time they’re on the river, these guys aren’t criminals, conquistadores, or fops but folks on boats.
Which is crucial, partly because the alternative would’ve been a one-joke, evening-length bore and partly because entertaining the idea of the Powell group’s humanity allows for a more nuanced, possibly even truer vision of America as a place of shared destinies—however much we all despise our asshole neighbors. Again, as in Hamilton, the point here isn’t simply to square accounts but to widen our sense of who we are. Or, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it (and I just heard the great Nina Turner reiterate), “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
The Backhaus/Davis approach is epitomized by William Boles’s exceedingly cool set, whose back wall consists of three squares within squares, the innermost square cut out to create a window. On the one hand the arrangement suggests a movie-camera lens, which in turn suggests the processes in American storytelling that have privileged white male heroes. Indeed, the cast often act with a studied self-consciousness, as if they were either in the movie of their lives or auditioning for it.
On the other hand, it reminds me of a room at the Mystery Spot tourist attraction in Santa Cruz, where the floor angles up to play disorienting tricks on your sense of perspective. And yes, that’s happening too. v